In a brilliant column for the Financial Times two months ago, the writer Simon Kuper responded to the Oscar Pistorius scandal by lamenting the unstoppable rise of the sports-industrial complex. The “machine of media and advertising that cranks out myths about athletes”, he said, “has gone into overdrive.”
Quite right. Five years ago, the three most famous sports stars in the world were probably Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong, and Tiger Woods. Each stood for an extraordinary narrative of triumph over adversity. Pistorius was the runner with no legs, Armstrong battled cancer, and Wood conquered all as a black man in a white man’s game. As such, they generated a mythical, demi-God-like status, in which they were held up as paragons of excellence rather than mere mortals.
Then came disgrace. Pistorius is charged with murdering his girlfriend, though he strongly denies it. For years Armstrong denied taking drugs to win the Tour de France, before finally confessing all. Woods turned out to be an adulterer, and split from his wife.
This weekend, on the greens of Augusta, there will be a new element to the narratives churned out by the sports-industrial complex: redemption.
It is hard to imagine the guilt and sheer terror Woods must have felt when, first with a bizarre car crash outside his house, and then a rush of revelations, his private fancies adorned front pages around the world. Yet his response has been almost flawless.
If you were a PR hired to secure his public rehabilitation, your advice would go something like this: get all the bad news out as soon as possible, apologise profusely and in full view, disappear from the scene for a while, rebrand yourself as a family man, and then remind people of your exceptional quality in your chosen field (golf).
That, almost to the letter, is what Woods has done. He goes into the 77th Masters as clear favourite, in the form of his life, and with Jack Nicklaus saying he fully expects Woods to win the five majors necessary to surpass his record. And, in strict adherence to this narrative, he has been plying journalists with quotes about the joys of fatherhood.
Alas for both Pistorius and Armstrong, such redemption will almost certainly prove beyond them – partly by force of circumstance, and partly because of personal decisions.
For Pistorius, the prospect of a lengthy trial, in which details about his private life and personal foibles enter the public domain, makes it impossible to get the bad news out quickly. Far from a sudden rush, it will be drip, drip, drip; and, of course, he might be found guilty. For Armstrong, redemption is impossible until he both admits all and says sorry. In his interview with Oprah Winfrey, he did neither, issuing a fudge on the specific allegations and displaying no contrition, maybe because he didn’t feel any.
Woods, probably the greatest golfer ever, has shown a peerless mastery of the sports-industrial complex. Victory on a dusky 18th this Sunday would complete his tale. But for Pistorius and Armstrong, there probably won’t be a happy ending.