THE BLOG

Oscar Pistorius and the Fault in Our Sports Stars

07/11/2014 12:35 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

On Tuesday, the prosecution team in the Oscar Pistorius trial appealed Pistorius' sentencing to five years in prison for killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, last Valentine's Day. Pistorius, the double-amputee track star that was once the inspiration to many, has now joined the ranks of fallen sports heroes, alongside recent inductees Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and Tiger Woods. The reality of these former heroes lives makes a disappointing narrative at best, and a depressing one at worst. In Pistorius' case, his fall from grace was not only been shocking, but also sinister.

We've venerated heroes ever since we began telling stories of greatness and courage. But since World War II, the label has become increasingly bestowed on athletes. More recently, we have shifted the heroic label towards sports stars who have overcome challenging obstacles both on the sports field and from life itself.

Such stories of overcoming both on and off the sports field have become crucial to our heroic definition, and this broadening of the heroic definition is probably a good thing. Unfortunately, the heroic narrative has also become increasingly improbable. In the last 15 years, the more unlikely the story and the more impossible the sport and life circumstances, the quicker an athlete rises to heroic status.

The problem with this is that as the overcoming obstacles of sportsmen and women become increasingly larger and more improbable, more common obstacles in sport and in life become less consequential to our definition of heroism. This takes us mere mortals further away from seeing heroism in ourselves and in everyday courage, and implies that we cannot be heroic until we become superhuman.

All of this, of course, crumbles when the truth comes out and our once venerated heroes fall spectacularly back to earth: when Lance and Marion admit to doping, when Tiger admits to infidelity, when Oscar shoots his girlfriend. We celebrated them for overcoming enormous challenges both on and off the sports field, yet the irony is that they all failed at overcoming some of the most basic tests of life.

We are then left in the wreckage, reassessing our definition of a hero.

Such recent heroic falls remind us that the increasingly difficult obstacle courses we have come to expect for hero qualification are actually meaningless. We are reminded of what we have known inherently all along--that a hero should have virtue and courage most especially the most basic tests of life, including fidelity, truthfulness, and respect. Seemingly small obstacles don't seem so small anymore, and matter to us in our definition of what is heroic as much as the big ones.

If there is any phoenix rising from the recent wreckage of Lance, Tiger, Marion, Oscar, and the falls of their predecessors, such as Tonya Harding, it is that their falls provide us with the opportunity to realign our definition and perception of what a hero is for the better. Instead of improbable and impossible heroism, this is our chance to make heroism banal. Such a concept suggests that we are all potential heroes, that heroism is a potential attribute of human nature and not a rare feature of the 'heroic elect'.

Everybody likes a good story of courage and overcoming the odds. But we are misguided to assume that excellence in a sport or in a public forum also means excellence in life, in living, and in the task of being human. What is truly courageous, basketball star Charles Barkley once said, is "a father or mother who gets up every morning to go to work to put food on the table for his family."