Pistorius trial asks serious questions of sport and its ‘winners’

Oscar Pistorius was last week acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend and model Reeva Steenkamp, and instead was bailed after being convicted of culpable homicide, a conviction that could lead to anything between a non-custodial sentence to 15 years in prison.

After the trial, the International Athletics Committee stated that the South African runner would be eligible to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro if he is not in jail.

The whole affair has brought a man, nicknamed the ‘Blade Runner’, from the very top of his sport to the extreme depths of human lows.

A multiple gold medal winner in the Paralympics as well as being the first double leg amputee athlete in the history of athletics to participate in the able-bodied Olympics, his fall from the pedestal of national hero has raised questions not only of his personal character, but of the role of sport in creating seemingly invincible people.

On the 13 February 2013, Pistorius’ gun sent shockwaves throughout the world. A sportsman, a national hero no less, had just shot and killed his supermodel girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Most people were not only shocked, but simply at a loss to explain why a six-time gold medallist, renowned for his calm demeanour and blistering speed on the race track, would shoot his girlfriend.

In reality, the question was not fully answered by Pistorius, nor is it likely that it ever will be. The use of largely irrelevant evidence in the trial, a view backed up by Judge Thokozile Masipa with her judgement, short and sharp considering the immense length of the trial, embarrassed both the prosecution and the defence due to their over-bearing and often irrelevant posturing.

The judgement of culpable homicide rather than murder was expected as the prosecution, led by reputed lawyer Gerrie Nel, was judged to have failed to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” its case for murder. Whether Pistorius actually murdered Steenkamp is a question only he can answer.

Apart from the inevitable questions that are facing the South African justice system after what is certainly a controversial judgement, the trial and conviction of Oscar Pistorius brings up a question for sport in general. Why does modern-day sport create athletes like Pistorius and OJ Simpson, who take the idea of being ‘winners’ too far?

If we look at the surface of this question, it seems a simple answer. Sport is, by nature, a competitive enterprise. You play football to score more goals than your opponents, you play rugby to score more tries, athletics to run faster, jump higher, throw further. It can easily be argued that with this ideal that winning is everything, athletes gradually become more and more ready to do anything to win.

This seems an over-simplified answer. If you talk to anyone under the age of 11, sport is not about winning, it is about having fun. While that immensely clichéd mantra of ‘It’s not about the winning, it’s the taking part that matters’ is as old as time, it does ring true. When you talk to athletes at the end of their careers, there is always one part of their life that they see through misty-eyed nostalgia, that part of their youth where they began playing the sport in which they ended up rising to the top. So this problem of ‘winners’ must run deeper than that.

image courtesy of nigerianmonitor.com

image courtesy of nigerianmonitor.com

Another argument is that this problem of ‘winners’ is something built into the way sport has become globalised over the past few decades, leading men and women to become not only elite athletes, but immensely rich celebrities through sponsorship and TV.

This increase in notoriety must affect how these people view the world that they live in. In the days of the maximum wage for footballers, you rarely heard of any going out and ending up arrested the next day, elite sport was a profession, not a privilege.

Obviously the suggestion that every sportsperson who existed before the era of money that we live in today was an angel is evidently ludicrous, but it is hard to deny money’s effect.

Until 25 years ago, football was a relatively poor sport. Sponsorships were not yet a mainstream part of life as a football club, they were not yet the businesses we understand them to be now.

Today, clubs are run on debt and huge turnover, none more so than Manchester United, a club with over £300m in debt, but they still turnover over £300m a year. The effect of this huge money slinging contest is a sense of entitlement that seeps throughout sport. Athletes expect to be paid large amounts for their work, as do coaches and managers, and with money comes success, and with success, more money.

Perhaps this is why sport has had an increase in athletes that seem to take their belief in winning too far both in sport and outside of sport.

With the recent spike in allegations of child abuse and domestic violence aimed at high profile players in the NFL, and after the initial condemnation to reluctant continuations of the status quo, the question of what this money does to the psyche of individuals is an important one to answer.

Did Pistorius deliberately kill Reeva Steenkamp because of an argument he just had to win? Did OJ Simpson believe he was entitled to kill his ex-wife in order to beat her at her own game? The answers to those questions are unanswerable. What is clear, however, is that the increase in the amount of money floating around in the modern era of sport has created an environment where success is a necessity, and should be achieved by any means.

The question is: has this led to a culture of entitlement and inevitable violence that has extended to the private lives of these athletes? Quite possibly. As Oscar Pistorius allegedly said to a group of policemen during his trial: “I always win”.

 

 

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