James Lawton: How vigilant must we be over the effects of all the adulation received by the likes of Oscar Pistorius and OJ Simpson?
When appalling events invade the lives of men of great achievement, we might have the wit to recognise and separate the best and the worst of them
He was standing on his own in a famous old restaurant off Las Ramblas in Barcelona, busy waiters pushing him aside, and there was a look of bewilderment on his face.
It was maybe as strange to you as it was to him because you knew that this man wearing the regulation blue blazer of the National Broadcasting Company of America, detached from his Olympic commentary team for just a little while, had gone so long without knowing a disturbing loss of identity. He had no-one to point his way or slap his back.
This happened more than 20 years ago but it might have been no more than a day or two when they beamed round the world the pictures of Oscar Pistorious being charged with the cold-blooded murder of his girlfriend.
The man in the restaurant would soon enough have his own day in court. It was OJ Simpson, two years away from what would be described as the Trial of the Century when he was acquitted of knifing to death his ex-wife and her friend. It was a verdict - reversed later by a civil court - which many believed prevented an eruption of rioting in the black ghettos of America.
There will be no such complications in the trial of Pistorious and, of course, few other easy parallels to draw - except, perhaps, the reminder that if we do not make killers along with monsters of celebrity we are not always so vigilant about the effects of all that adulation. Or the fact that when it turns, when it becomes something obsessive and ugly, we are as voraciously fascinated as when Pistorious so astonishingly pushed back the limits on handicapped athletes and Simpson was a beautiful, record-shattering god of the gridiron.
In the restaurant Simpson was happy to join a table whose inhabitants knew his name. His mood lightened when he was introduced as The Juice. Briefly he had been lost and now he was found. Or so it was pleasant to imagine.
The next time you saw him he was being led into court in Santa Monica. America, and not just the San Diego freeway which Simpson drove down surrounded by a flotilla of Highway Patrol, had come to a standstill. On the bridges over the freeway beer and hot dog vendors did brisk business as parents took the kids to see the latest sensation and when the big white SUV came by slowly you could have heard the cries in a distant street. Some of them included the old ritual chant, “Way to go OJ.”
The gruesome pantomime coincided with the opening of the 1994 World Cup but Diego Maradona, screaming into a camera after scoring the goal that preceded his drug bust, might have been a member of some obscure warm-up act. If they were not some of the worst weeks in the life of America, they were not without their claims.
Jonny Cochrane, a courtroom performer of the most flamboyant kind, said it was simply a race issue. White America was bearing down on Black America and if you thought OJ Simpson was briefly dislocated and troubled in the Barcelona restaurant, it was terrible to behold him now. The prosecution cast him as Othello, irretrievably jealous of his beautiful ex-wife. The defence said he was a victim of entrapment and prejudice by the LAPD. A white detective fled to Oregon after accusations that he had planted evidence. Every now and then someone got round to mentioning that Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, a waiter as it happened, had been brutally murdered.
In Pretoria the police are suggesting a clear cut case. They were quick to point out a history of ‘domestic’ calls to the opulent, secure house of Pistorious and, like Simpson before he was rallied by his defence team, the erstwhile hero looks an utterly broken man.
Of course it is a bonanza for the social network but those merely wanting to reflect soberly on the meaning of any celebrity, sports or otherwise, and the part we all play in it, there wasn’t a whole lot of scope for firing off some of the old certainties.
What we can say is that none of the plaudits handed to Pistorious when he first began to astound the world or Simpson, who grew up in a San Francisco ‘project,’ won the Heisman Trophy while at the University of California in Los Angeles as one of the most stunning running backs in the history of college sport and then became the star of the Buffalo Bills, contributed to the shaping of a killer.
The possibility that Mike Tyson would one day be convicted of rape no doubt had a lot more to do with his brutal treatment in a detention centre after his days as a boy mugger in Brooklyn than the fact that he was crowned world champion. Similarly, Pistorious and Simpson would always have to contend with the more troubling aspects of their own natures.
What it might mean, just, is that when bad, even appalling events invade the lives of men of great achievement, we might have the wit to recognise and separate the best and the worst of them. We might have the power to make celebrity but the rest, we have once again been reminded, is entirely out of our hands.
Of course, it was not something you were likely to think about too deeply when The Juice sat down and ordered a beer.
The case of Sam Warburton
It might be impertinent to suggest, especially after his life-giving triumph in Paris, that Wales’s interim coach Rob Howley is wrong not to return Sam Warburton to the colours at the first opportunity. However, it feels that way and profoundly so.
Nor is any disrespect directed towards to the impressive Justin Tipuric.
Simply, it is to return to the old theory that while it is important to note the coming and going of a player’s best form there is sometimes a greater imperative.
It is to recognise proven competitive character of the highest order.
Anyone in New Zealand for the last World Cup still tends to murmur their wonder at the quality of Warburton’s contribution as not only the youngest captain in the history of the tournament but also an open side flanker who announced himself as nothing less than a force of nature.
His blood-tingling collisions with formidable operators such as South Africa’s Heinrich Brussow and Ireland’s Sean O’Brien carried extraordinary impact and provided master coach Sir Ian MecGeechan with the initial evidence that not only was he watching the emergence of an outstanding player but also the man of the tournament.
McGeechan confirmed that opinion after the All Blacks won the title, which was another reason to mourn the decision of Irish referee Alain Rolland to red card Warburton after 18 minutes of the semi-final with the French. Warburton accepted the charge that his tackle on the diminutive Vincent Clerc was dangerous but he had many ferocious defenders, not least that formidable old All Black Wayne Shelford.
Warburton was stopped short, rightly or wrongly (and the feeling here is with Shelford) a little short of the mountain top. However, that is no reason for him to linger a second longer than necessary in the foothills.
Roy Hodgson should reconsider selecting Rio Ferdinand
Some may not agree with Rio Ferdinand that most every thought he has deserves the attention of the Twitter classes. Others might go further and say that he might have brought rancour to the Last Supper.
However, it has become increasingly hard to support the theory of England manager Roy Hodgson that he is still excluded from the national team for good ‘football reasons.’ Hodgson enjoyed an encouraging performance against Brazil the other night but surely it would have been hugely enhanced by the presence of Ferdinand. The cantankerous old boy has rarely been in such magnificent nick.
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