With chiseled physiques and feats that oftentimes seem superhuman, it’s easy to see why athletes are looked up to as our heroes, our role models, our idols. Like modern-day Greek myths, their likenesses adorn our bedroom walls and we wear their names across our back as a banner of support and admiration.
How can a normal human live up to such expectations and remain unscathed? If recent events are indication, the answer is simple: They can’t.
I refer specifically to the plummet South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius has taken during the past month. On Feb. 14 Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through the bathroom door of the couple’s apartment, killing her. Pistorius testifies that the killing was an accident and that he believed his girlfriend was an intruder, while prosecutors argue that Steenkamp’s death was a premeditated murder. Pistorius was granted bail on Feb. 19 and now awaits trial.
Demolishing barriers for fellow disabled athletes, Oscar Pistorius rose to prominence in the 2012 London Olympics when he was the first double amputee to compete in the Men’s 200 meter dash event at the games. Dubbed “Blade Runner,” it didn’t seem to matter that Pistorius went home empty-handed; the story of a man who had to walk on prosthetic legs who was somehow able to be competitive in one of the most difficult sports to be competitive in was too good. It was too inspirational. The man called “Blade Runner” was a hero.
At least that’s what we as a hero-worshipping society want to believe.
The fact of the matter is, regardless of how inspirational the South African’s story is and of the strength it took for him to overcome his disability, this does not make him a “hero.” There are hundreds of people each day who struggle with disabilities and tap into superhuman resolve that those with able bodies can hardly imagine. Pistorius is no better or worse than any of these people.
What he was, however, was a champion. He was supposed to represent the pinnacle of what a person’s dogged determination can do given the most dramatic of circumstances. Because he was so visible and because his feats were measurable, we worshipped him for it. “Blade Runner” became not just a clever moniker, but the alias of a superhero.
Of course, there’s no such thing. Over time it became increasingly obvious just how human Pistorius is.
Shortly after his run at the Olympics, Pistorius competed in the Paralympic Games where he started a minor controversy after disputing the specifications of his fellow double-amputee sprinter, Alan Oliveira’s, prosthetics. Despite the irony and potentially damaging affectation this could have had on the South African’s reputation, the clout he wielded at the time easily deflected such criticism. Now, that clout is gone and Pistorius faces a potentially life-upending trial ahead.
All this while Nike now retracts its advertising campaign centered around Pistorius; its tagline, ironically, was to be “I am the bullet in the chamber.”
Of course, one would be remiss not to also mention how this unfortunate saga comes almost immediately on the heels of Lance Armstrong’s “defrocking” in his public doping case. While not as serious an offense as killing someone, Armstrong’s failings also expose the idea of exceptional stories having very unexceptional protagonists.
But that is indeed the rub; it was us who idolized these men. Really, they simply did what they set their minds toward and, although life might have thrown many more hurdles in their way than most, they accomplished their goals in their own time. The result was idolization, heaping pressure and an ever-present spotlight.
And like any men might, these men crumbled.
It isn’t to say we should never look upon others with admiration, nor that we shouldn’t acknowledge the accomplishments of men and women who do the extraordinary. Simply put, we have to realize that these people are human like any other human and their acts should not be celebrated any more or less than our own day-to-day achievements.
After all, we too are unexceptional. Let us live in our own exceptional stories.