Oscar Pistorius: Look up to anyone – just not sportsmen

Tell your children to admire their dentist, their teacher, a lawyer, even a banker

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You can amuse yourself by listing some of the educational strategies which currently rely on sport.

If you look at individual organisations, you will see that sport can diminish gang crime (Nottingham Unity). It can diminish racism (Sport Against Racism Ireland). It can, The Spectator told us this week, improve attainment in maths “through physical activity and sport” (Active Learning Programme), or put an end to female genital mutilation (Women Win).

Sportspeople are routinely held up as “role models” or, when they fall short, regarded as people who have fallen short and stopped being the “role models” that they surely could be. Sport is at the centre of our moral universe and, individually and en masse, sportspeople are a force for good. Everyone should admire and emulate them.

A couple of days ago, a woman was shot dead in her boyfriend’s house in South Africa. It appears that she and her boyfriend were the only two people there. The boyfriend, a celebrated Olympian athlete called Oscar Pistorius, has pleaded not guilty to murder. His people issued a statement saying that Pistorius “has made history as an Olympic and Paralympic sportsman and has been an inspiration to others the world over”. That may be so. He has also announced in the past that he sleeps with a pistol by his bed, and a machine gun on his window sill. He has in the past been charged with assaulting a woman.

Do we admire such a man who keeps a machine gun in the house, whether he killed his girlfriend accidentally or deliberately? Limiting ourselves to his behaviour on the track, many people lost some admiration for him at the London Paralympic games. He was beaten fairly by a Brazilian athlete, and his immediate response was to accuse his rival of cheating.

There was no cheating. After a word from his team, no doubt mentioning his $1m (£600,000) a year sponsorship deals, backtracking followed, and an apology was made. But some of us wondered why, exactly, we were expected to admire this person.

It would be easy to say that people like Pistorius are rare: that most sports stars offer great role models to young people. But then there is Lance Armstrong, barely apologising after years of drug-taking and violent threats against people in cycling who were the slightest bit curious.

Tiger Woods, portraying family values for money. There is John Terry, who was captain of the England football team when he was found to have called Anton Ferdinand a “fucking black c**t” – Terry’s defence was that he was not being racist, but quoting a racist sentiment on the field. The huge wages paid to footballers has led to a more or less open culture of gambling addiction. Football is institutionally racist and homophobic. Where are all the gay or Asian players? And after the hero’s career is over? The role model may look like Paul Gascoigne.

Of course, sport is full, too, of decent and honourable people. The behaviour of Sir Bradley Wiggins is a constant joy to behold, and even if we never get on a bike, we can aspire to behave as well as him when we win, as well as when we lose. David Beckham clearly thinks of how he can behave well, to society as well as to his family. He is worth our admiration. But then, seriously – Mike Tyson? Diego Maradona?

Aiming to find role models in sport is a dangerous business. Sportsmen seem no better behaved on the whole than any other segment of the entertainment business, with the distinction that strippers, on the whole, don’t talk piously about their duty to be “role models” or how much everyone admires them when they are arrested for killing their partners.

But even if the topic of our admiration is as well behaved as anyone might wish, is it really the best object to present to our children for their aspiration? Readers of Jonathan Rose’s classic book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes will recall that a hundred years ago, the working classes were encouraged into libraries, to extra-mural studies, to regard revolutionaries, poets, painters, thinkers, doctors, professionals as their heroes worthy of their aspiration. Many transformed themselves; most came to lead useful and productive lives.

That’s gone, and what we have now is the sportsman as a role model. In the street where I live, a boy nearby has been encouraged by his feckless family to play football every hour of the day, often playing truant from school to practice. They were sure he was going to get a trial for Chelsea and make their fortune. He’s left school now with no qualifications. He didn’t get a trial with Chelsea. He’s collecting glasses at the pub on the corner. The current culture, which encourages ordinary people to take only Lottery winners and sports stars as their role models, is a successful component in the suppression of social mobility.

What would have happened if, instead of regarding John Terry as a hero, he and his family read books and newspapers, took an interest in current affairs – had some role models that were actually worth aspiring to? That may sound absurdly unrealistic. Ordinary people reading books and arguing over politics? But only in 2013. In 1913, everyone would have agreed that that was realistic, and achievable.

The individual case is terribly sad – a young woman has been killed for no reason. Perhaps, as the story unfolds and the court comes to its conclusion, we could wonder whether we really want to present this culture as anything worth aspiring to, or even taking much interest in. Tell your children to admire their dentist, their teacher, a lawyer, a politician or a painter. Even a banker. Because he won’t think it’s a brilliant idea to keep a machine gun on the window sill.

Twitter: @PhilipHensher

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