GOING ALL IN?

Oscar, Oscar, we hardly knew you.

 

Six months or so ago, most of us who were not already diehard track fans were enthralled by your story. We marveled at both your determination and athleticism—a combination that not only made you a dominant Paralympics athlete but earned you a spot to run in the London Olympics. Once there, you did not disappoint, earning your way to run in a semifinal heat of the 400 meters and in the finals of the 4×400 relay for South Africa.

 

 

Who among us did not root for you, Oscar Pistorius, The Blade Runner, the first amputee runner to ever compete in the Olympics. (Other than family and friends of your competitors, I guess, but even they must have been hoping you’d take the silver.) You were a much-needed symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, something that the Olympics is only sporadically about, beset as it is with so much politics and scandal. To those with disabilities, especially our children, I can only imagine what your triumphs represented.

 

And now, we are here. The whole world, give or take a million or two, knows about the horrible and tragic killing of your girlfriend—a very bright, talented, almost impossibly gorgeous woman named Reeva Steenkamp. And now we are trying to decide if you were only a paranoid wacko with an affinity for guns who made a serious lapse in judgment or a cold-blooded, premeditated murderer— one with a propensity for domestic violence. Quite a choice you’ve given us, and I’d guess that most of us—even those of us who don’t relish jumping to judgments—are leaning toward the latter.

 

But, this isn’t just about you, Oscar. And while more attention and solace should be given to the victim and her family, this column is not exactly about that either, even though her murder (premeditated or homicidally negligent) is the true tragedy here.

 

You see, Oscar, as shocking and as devastating as your saga is, perhaps we should have been somewhat prepared for it. You’re not exactly the first athletic figure to fall from grace in recent months, even if yours may have been the most precipitous crash of all.

 

For various reasons and with varying amounts of severity, we’ve seen the ignominious crashes of so many sports figures in the last year or two. Baseball players who have cheated and lied. Tiger Woods, who wasn’t what he was made out to be, and what most of us hoped he was, in his private life. Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and the Penn State football program and hierarchy. Even the mere mention of what was once the feel-good story of the college football season—Manti Te’o, anyone?—at best just brings derision and a cynic’s laughter.

 

There wasn’t even room in that paragraph for Lance Armstrong, until recently the most powerful athletic and pop cultural symbol for standing up to cancer and other adversities. No, he did not accidentally murder, anyone, but he did admit to cheating, lying and bullying over and over again.

 

Time, and our individual approaches on such matters, will determine if Lance Armstrong should still be regarded as something of a hero (or at least on balance, one who did more good than otherwise) for giving hope to so many, even if much of that hope was teetering on a stack of lies. Some of us have debated the same about Joe Paterno (Sandusky can rot in hell for what he did), as we do not know exactly how complicit he was. How exactly are we supposed to compartmentalize and evaluate this stuff, anyway?

 

Such falls from grace are not that unusual, and collectively they are not a recent phenomenon, although it appears that they are coming with shocking regularity now. So, how do we process all this?

 

It would be nice to say that we shouldn’t rely on anybody that we don’t really know to be our role models. Our role models should be our parents, our teachers, our religious leaders and our public servants. Who can argue with that.

 

It is easy to say that we should not put so much time, trouble and thought into following people who we do not really know—our actors and actresses, rock stars and sports icons—and who can argue with that.

 

Many have arrived at the position that when it comes to our sports stars, we should admire what they do on the fields, courts, rinks and tracks and then…well…that’s it. Compartmentalize them. Don’t worry about their personal lives, and why open ourselves up to disappointment when they do crash and burn for one reason or another.

 

Again, that is somewhat sage advice, or is it? I’m not advocating that we eternally run around like little fanboys and fangirls and idolize anyone who is famous. Of course, that would be a strong prescription for not only great disappointment, but also somewhat empty lives. I am suggesting that there is a price of sorts to pay for not opening ourselves up for some disappointment. And lots of thrills.

 

The time has long since passed when our sports heroes were simply people we heard about on the radio or saw on TV when they were running for the end zone or trying to crush a ball into the bleachers. There’s no putting the genies of 24/7 media and social media back in their bottles. Yes, we should not expect too much from any of our heroes on or off the field, but are sports fans really wired to be that rational? Part of being a sports fan is to root fanatically for our favorite teams, players and coaches.

 

When it came to Oscar Pistorius, most of us rooted for him because he was a powerful embodiment of what we are capable of accomplishing against long odds. Many of us who have never rooted for South Africa to do anything but end apartheid would have been thrilled beyond belief if he had racked up a medal for that republic at the 2012 London Games. And wasn’t it natural to assume, at least in some small measure, that the man had strong character? I thought so.

 

Oscar, we could have even somewhat rationalized for you if you were found to be using performance-enhancing drugs (and I don’t know if you have or haven’t cheated in that vein), because, well, it wouldn’t exactly have been noble, but you were running with the odds stacked against you.

 

If the lesson to be learned from this—regardless of the verdict in your upcoming trial for premeditated murder—is that we will no longer look for celebrities to serve as our role models, then that would be the one good thing to come out of this senseless tragedy. Pardon me if I don’t see that happening any time soon, or at least in the way that would redirect our day-to-day energies to our families, our teachers, and our true servants.

 

That would be nice, but I suspect that it just won’t happen. Yes, we may become more jaded and even express some knowing satisfaction when another hero falls, but will we just relish in that jaded cynicism or refocus our admiration to those who are more deserving of it? I suspect the latter, even if I don’t want to be overly cynical here.

 

Actually, I don't want to be cynical at all. I don't want to be manipulated by the various hype machines, but I don't want to outgrow my appetite  for sports and those occasional feel-good stories. It stinks to be let down, but I don't want to deny myself those vicarious ascents just because those almost inevitable descents are lurking.

 

In truth, I still want to go all in with my emotions—each and every time.

 

 

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