Thrill of Victory

Making underdogs into heroes: the Pistorius Problem

I will start by admitting that I’m no different than you.

I love a great story, too. When I watched South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius compete in the Olympics with prosthetic legs, it was one of the greatest sports stories I’d ever seen. To compete at any level was amazing; to compete as one of the world’s elite athletes in a high-profile sport was astonishing, and that’s probably an understatement. Sports are more fun when you have someone to pull for; why not him?

So like you, I rooted for Oscar Pistorius. But in light of the allegations that he murdered his girlfriend, the fact that I did root for him without much thought gives me pause for thought now.

As humans, we have a tendency to prefer the caricature over the reality. I have written many a time about Lance Armstrong, whom people worshipped for years in spite of the mounting evidence that suggested he was neither on the up-and-up in terms of how he competed, nor was he an exemplary human being. Armstrong finally admitted to falling short on both counts, but not after millions of people worshipped the image over the real person.

Given the choice, we always prefer the story sold to us. Armstrong mattered. He inspired people. He was a charismatic figure who conquered cancer and achieved things at impossible odds. Pistorius did the same, except it was was a handicap instead of cancer. (The parallels may go further, as there is now some question as to whether Pistorius cheated or not.)

The problem with an Oscar Pistorius is that it’s not cool to ask tough questions or be skeptical on any level. There were questions as to whether Pistorius’s prosthetic legs provided him with an unfair advantage in competition; I generally dismissed those as petty complaints and I bet a lot of you readers did, too. Again, who wants to rain on a hero’s parade?

And because of that, I wonder if there were things that people around him glossed over. There was another instance of an assault. This picture that the mother of one of Pistorius’s girlfriends paints of him is also less-than-flattering.

Those things may or may not be true, which isn’t really my point. It’s that with a guy like Pistorius, we generally don’t spend a lot of time looking for anything that may ruin our image of him, nor do we want to. Supposing that some of the worst things people say about Pistorius are true, I wonder how many other stories are out there that either went un-reported, or that the victims themselves glossed over because of who we thought Pistorius was.

When I saw the news of the shooting death of his girlfriend, I’ll admit that my first thought was, “There’s no way he did that,” not just because it didn’t fit with my image of him, but also because it seems so stupid for someone who had accomplished so much to throw it away like that. But the truth — and certainly, Nicole Brown Simpson’s family can tell you this — is that is not always how the world works.

That alone should tell us to always check our assumptions.

I don’t know whether Pistorius murdered his girlfriend or not, and I certainly hope that he didn’t. But if he did, maybe it happened because he thought we’d let him get away with it. With a girl lying dead today, that should bother us all.