Chris McGrath: Murder accused Oscar Pistorius - another fallen idol mocks our hunger for demi-gods
It is almost as though we discover some calculated gratification in our 'disillusion'. Say it ain't so, Joe... only don't
So perhaps those will turn out to be blades of clay. The man who was less than a man, shorn of both feet in infancy, had become superhuman. Now it seems as though that paradox may yet be horribly inverted, disclosing a far more grotesque mutation in Oscar Pistorius.
The charges against him are so monstrous that any superficial explanation of the rage that may have marked his career is clearly irrelevant. Who, for now, can presume to judge what was going through his mind when he allegedly pulled the trigger?
But there does remain a rather more suitable case for treatment. For no less than we have shared in his hours of glory, borrowing inspiration from his human spirit, so we must also absorb some of this sudden fall.
To an extent, we elevate every sporting idol above real life no less artificially than do the blades of Pistorius. It is pointless, plainly, to ask whether this same catastrophe might have been avoided by its protagonists had they instead began Valentine's Day, say, frying eggs and washing up in a diner. But other lives have certainly unravelled – if not in quite so shocking and bloody a way – when those we should celebrate only in one, limited dimension have been seduced into believing our own publicity.
That happens so often, in fact, that it seems legitimate to wonder whether we should sooner be rebuked for cynicism than naïvete. It is almost as though we discover some calculated gratification in our "disillusion". Say it ain't so, Joe … Only don't.
Conceivably our relish is cruder still: mere envy, perhaps. How many of those who disowned Tiger Woods would have behaved differently if only fate had dealt them their due in physique and bank balance? So we instead vindicate our outrage by pointing to commercial exploitation. If someone owes lucrative endorsements to a phoney clean-cut image, then he has an obligation to preserve the illusion! The fact is, however, that most of us find it all too easy to deny our imperfections to ourselves – even without the incentive of a big fat cheque, or the twin distortions achieved by constant expectation and universal flattery.
In other cases, admittedly, the betrayal goes to the very heart of what has elevated an athlete in the first place. But it does seem plain, in Lance Armstrong and others, that even the most brazen deceit must still convince its author as far as possible. To that extent, we also connive with those who consider themselves a law unto themselves; that they can get away with anything; that probity and abstinence and the like are not required of the real dudes, the alpha males, the stags with the biggest antlers. Because they couldn't really get there without us. That's how you end up with the cheering spectators lining the freeway, as the fugitive OJ Simpson fled the police.
In fairness, our craving for demi-gods invites as much pity as reproof. We see them glorified by grace and prowess, like martial heroes, and comfort ourselves that such paragons could surely win through life's more insidious battles, as well. How much, after all, can one kind of equilibrium differ from another?
The disintegration of Paul Gascoigne reiterates the self-destructive inadequacies that lurk beyond so much glib mythology. But that will never stop us seeking out invulnerability in others who disguise their frailties better.
In the end, it is as pointless to generalise about elite sportsmen as it is about people. Some of them are inflamed by a hatred of defeat, prepared to separate themselves from the herd by embracing risks that no ordinary judgement would contemplate. Others exude a humility that could never be simulated for corporate gain. And a few even contrive to fall into both camps.
Remember that Sandy Koufax, who declined to pitch on the opening day of the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur, and Eric Liddell, whose refusal to race on a Sunday at the Paris Olympics was celebrated in Chariots Of Fire, made their stands not as principled "role models" but as principled men. Had they been insurance clerks, we should never have heard of them – but they would still have stood tall in their own lives.
Increasing addiction to celebrity, since their day, infects deeds of every shade – for better, for worse. With each new fallen idol, those who have worshipped them will already have played their part. Who needs running blades, after all, when we can issue them with pedestals?
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