Charged with the murder of his girlfriend, South African Olympic star Oscar Pistorius has gone from being everybody’s favourite ‘Blade Runner’ to being dismissed as ‘Blade Gunner’ by tabloid headline writers.
His overnight fall from grace is a wake-up call for us all. It points to the need for a swift injunction on the facile manner in which global media outlets tend to create spurious narratives about false heroes and then find themselves in a bind.
In a success-at-all-costs culture aggressively perpetuated by wily spin doctors, the gap between the euphoria of sporting achievement and the demands of real-life skills appears to be rapidly widening.
Not very long ago, the world had to grapple with similar disappointment caused by cycling ‘great’ Lance Armstrong and golfing ‘legend’ Tiger Woods. Both were widely admired champions, but were severely flawed and not averse to courting disaster in their personal lives while chasing their sporting dreams.
Like that of Pistorius, the early stories of Armstrong and Woods were full of drama and struggle, and their superlative feats in the sporting arena catapulted them on to a pedestal.
The aura built around them by 24x7 media coverage blinded everybody to the serious flaws in their characters.
In fact, nobody, least of all the managers of the multinational brands that these once-lionised sportsmen endorsed for many years, ever felt the need to pause and assess whether they were indeed the right role models to project into homes across the globe through television screens and glossy periodicals.
The utter shock with which the news of the killing of model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp in Pistorius’ luxury home in Pretoria has been received across the world is absolutely understandable.
Until that fateful Valentine’s Day morning, could anybody have imagined that the 400-metre sprinter, the first double amputee in history to compete against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics, would end up in custody for alleged murder? He was after all a sporting icon like no other, an inspiration for all physically challenged people.
The sense of surprise would perhaps have been far less had the media bothered to track the 26-year-old Paralympian’s tendency to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.
Pistorius has a history of awkward behavior — speedboat wrecks, violent threats and a cavalier fixation for firearms.
The initial reaction of the South African media was sympathetic to “the fastest man on no legs”.
It was suggested that he might have shot Steenkamp because he mistook her for an intruder. Nobody bothered to ask why he needed to fire as many as four shots if he was only trying to stop an unwelcome entry into his home.
However, within hours of the police swinging into action, the theme of the Steenkamp killing coverage in the media changed and Pistorius was charged with something far more serious than an accidental shooting — premeditated murder.
‘Premeditated’ was a word that was used frequently after Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner after conquering cancer, admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs at the time of those victories. He has since been stripped of all the seven titles.
But when David Walsh, chief sports writer of The Sunday Times, in his reportage and books, repeatedly highlighted his suspicion about the cyclist being the kingpin of a doping network, the journalist was hounded by Armstrong and his managers.
The newspaper Walsh works for had to pay the cyclist a huge amount of money after a court ruling. The question is: will Armstrong return that sum now that the entire world knows that he cheated?
Golfer Tiger Woods has returned to the professional circuit after a self-imposed exile, but he will never again be the “hero” that he was made out to be at the height of his career, a decade or so that saw him sweep everything before him.
Initially, he sought to weave a web of lies when it emerged in late 2009 that he was unfaithful to his Swedish wife of over five years, Elin Nordegren.
But as the skeletons began to tumble out of his cupboard, he admitted to serial extramarital transgressions — acts that he, in his words, thought he could get away with.
Woods had a string of affairs and it cost him dear. He and Nordegren were divorced within a year, and the events that followed led to the golfer suffering financial losses and a sharp decline in form.
The ‘Best Player of the Year’ for a record ten times slipped from No.1 in the rankings to a lowly No.58.
The US has seen other tragic sporting sagas — those involving OJ Simpson and Michael Vick, both NFL stars, are still fresh in public memory — but none can compare in tragic magnitude with the downfall of Woods and Armstrong.
Pistorius has now joined the same league of infamy: a sad reminder that a super-achiever is not always a paragon of virtue in everyday life. Can we now expect the ‘hero’ tag to be used more sparingly from now on?