Oscar Pistorius: when good metaphors turn bad

It is bad for sport when we turn athletic stars either into role models for society or symbols of evil.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Sport and metaphors go together like a horse and carriage, to adapt Sammy Cahn’s famous, er, simile. And there’s no harm in that. Football parlance is replete with witty and lyrical metaphors and similes. From ‘sick as a parrot’ to ‘parking the bus’, football has mined the metaphorical coal seam for all it’s worth.

The problem, however, is when sport itself becomes a metaphor, a parable about broader social concerns. In fact, we take the fetishisation of sport one step further. We expect sporting heroes to be role models, to serve as moral templates. We can’t, it seems, resist the temptation to ascribe powers to sport that it simply doesn’t possess. We don’t just want sport to thrill and entertain us; we see sport as an instrument for social good or evil.

Exhibit A, if you’ll pardon the inappropriate courtroom metaphor, is Oscar Pistorius. We see the role-model fallacy very clearly illustrated in the story of South Africa’s fallen hero. While the protracted drama of Pistorius’ bail hearing was played out last week, the metaphor-builders were hard at work demolishing the old good metaphors and constructing new darker, portentous metaphors. Before the tragic death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, Pistorius had been the ultimate good metaphor: a symbol of disability equality and post-Apartheid reconstruction. He wasn’t just a man who ran very fast on prosthetic blades; he was a role model who, through his sporting achievements, could somehow make the world a better place.

Pistorius was the superstar of the 2012 Paralympics and, inevitably, he and his fellow competitors were credited with altering society’s attitudes towards disabled people. ‘Nobody embodied the soaring human spirit of the Paralympics like Oscar Pistorius. Nobody changed attitudes like the Blade Runner’, wrote Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror. As a South African he was also seen as symbol of national unity. Donald McRae described in the Guardian how his compatriots had constructed an idealised allegorical Pistorius: ‘South Africans, despite the coarsening violence of the country’s history and current reality, can be sentimental and hopelessly romantic at times. And so it was often trumpeted that Pistorius was a gleaming symbol of South Africa’s past resistance to adversity, and of its future embrace of equality. His life-story was often told as a parable of hope that the country really was in the process of remaking itself after apartheid’. Pistorius was no longer just a world class athlete or a Paralympic gold medallist; he had effectively become the sporting wing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In this sense, Pistorius was a successor to South Africa’s World Cup winning rugby team. When Nelson Mandela presented the William Webb Ellis trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in 1995, the predominantly white rugby team were lauded for uniting the nation and healing the wounds of apartheid. Clint Eastwood even made Invictus, a rose-tinted Hollywood film about the Springboks’ supposed role in unifying the previously fractured Rainbow Nation.

It’s easy to see why the myth of sport’s transformative social powers is so seductive. Sport has the delicious transcendental capacity to take us out of ourselves, to lift us out of the daily drudgery and bring people together. A society which, in all other respects, is divided or atomised can be fleetingly, gloriously conjoined in sporting passion. But a nation that cheers together doesn’t necessarily stay together. The dewy-eyed desire for sporting heroes who transcend social and racial divisions provides comfort food for armchair peacekeepers but, in practice, South Africa’s social and economic problems could never have been solved by the victorious Springboks or by Oscar Pistorius. Indeed the fact that Pistorius’ was heavily armed and lived in gated community is a stark reminder of South Africa’s social and racial tensions. The pass laws have been scrapped but affluent white South African’s live separate lives, fearful of the impoverished black masses.

The tendency to ascribe healing or unifying powers to sporting heroes isn’t just a South African trait. It’s a global myth. When the French football team won the World Cup in 1998, it wasn’t just celebrated as a sporting achievement, but as a victory for a new integrated ‘tricoloured and multicoloured France’. As Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper put it: ‘The black, white and Arab players singing the ‘Marseillaise’ arm in arm embody France’s ideal of fraternité. When they won the World Cup in 1998, it was considered a blow to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front party.’ In reality, as the riots in deprived banlieus of French cities in 2005 showed, achieving social integration requires much more than a feelgood afterglow of sporting triumph.

Just as we should resist the urge to see sports heroes as instruments of virtue, so too should we reject its antithesis – the notion that bad behaviour by sportsmen is corrosive of the social fabric. Oscar Pistorius was expected to heal South Africa’s social ills when he was winning gold, but now that he stands accused of murder, bad metaphors have replaced the positive ones. Even though the trial has yet to take place, Pistorius has already become a symbol variously of South Africa’s gun culture, the cult of celebrity and violence against women.

Inevitably, some see Pistorius’ alleged crime as a product of the extreme pressures and demands of elite sport itself. ‘You have to wonder if it’s wise to admire driven characters who possess the selfishness required to make it to the very top in sport. They’ll call it sacrifice but in plainer terms it’s naked ambition that puts themselves and their performance before everything and everyone’, wrote Euan McLean in the Daily Record. Reports that testosterone-boosting steroids and syringes had been found at the athlete’s apartment led to media speculation that Pistorious ‘shot his girlfriend while in the grip of “roid rage”’. The sub-text is that the sporting imperative to win at all costs turned Pistorius into a violent steroid junkie.

The fall of Pistorius has led some commentators to question whether we should put sports stars on pedestals at all. Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times earlier this month, argues that elite sportsmen are particularly ill-suited to being role models. ‘The mythmaking only gets louder, yet the ability of athletes to live up to these myths is diminishing. In real life, they are becoming less exemplary. That’s because in many sports it’s now almost a professional obligation to take drugs; because athletes as masculine ideals have boundless opportunities for adultery; and because they have got used to everyone saying yes to them, which means they often struggle with challenging human situations.’

I don’t want sports stars to be treated as role models. Not because, as Kuper suggests, they are particularly prone to misconduct. Rather it’s because moral instruction really isn’t their job. But, while I don’t expect athletes or footballers to behave like saints, I don’t want to dispense with sporting heroes altogether. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from Olympians like Oscar Pistorius who strive to push back the boundaries of sporting possibility. But they should be celebrated for their sporting accomplishments, not mythologised as instruments for social good.

And if sporting heroes go off the rails? It’s a tragedy in the Pistorius case. But we should still lay off the Pistorius metaphors. We simply don’t know whether the killing of Reeva Steenkamp was a terrible accident or a crime passionel. Either way, we shouldn’t allow the Pistorius story to be rewritten as a moralistic parable.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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