How is it possible for one so high to fall so low so quickly?” a talk-show host was overheard asking when news that “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius would be appearing in court on charges of murdering his girlfriend this week first broke.
Pistorius, a double amputee (he’d been born without a fibula in both his legs), is one of the biggest names in international athletics and a much-admired hero.
A brilliantly talented sports hero who’d overcome physical disadvantages to excel in his field and, in fact, compete and win against able-bodied sportsmen, he’s someone who inspired people to do their best, stand up against adversity, live life king-size, never say die!
Yes, like Lance Armstrong.
This column has frequently examined the phenomena of heroes with feet of clay. What is the nature of their demons, who bears the cost of their misdemeanours, and where does their adoring public go for catharsis and hope?
What we had not bargained for in these dismal times is that the passage between penthouses and repent houses would be such a short one.
Not only do the denouements come in faster (Lance’s fall from grace, for instance, was a slower process) but there appear to be more fallen angels falling from the skies these days — industrialists, financial leaders, politicians and, of course, sportsmen.
Of course, sociologists and media watchers will tell us that the ubiquity of 24X7, seamless news reporting makes it appear that we live in crash-bang-boom times, and that exaggeration and a heightened sense of doom are part of the collateral damage. But even so, I cannot think of a time when so many of those that we trusted, revered, looked up to and held up as benchmarks of propriety and good conduct have fallen so quickly or so hard.
In the case of Pistorius the collapse of his career and image has been devastating.
Known to be a kind gentleman who “picked up strangers’ cheques and made time for his fans”, he was a man who epitomised his nation’s hopes: handicapped by history or birth but aspiring to shine on the world stage.
The impact of this on his countrymen and fans worldwide can only be imagined. More shocking than the indictment of legendary footballer O J Simpson for the murders of his wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in 1994. Far more tragic than the media fest that followed the revelation of champion golfer Tiger Woods’ string of adulteries after his split with his wife.
The dreadful nature of Pistorius’ tragedy exists not only because here was a man who overcame such a huge disadvantage of birth to triumph with such aplomb, but that he lived every man’s fantasy: success, fame, a beautiful home, a well-upholstered bank balance and a supermodel girlfriend.
Add to that the fact that the shooting took place on Valentine’s Day; that his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, was scheduled to have spoken against violence against women at a Johannesburg school earlier that week; and that initial stories held that the shooting had been a case of mistaken identity (that Pistorius had mistakenly thought he was apprehending a burglar and not his girlfriend who was surprising him with a Valentine visit). No wonder, it is all so heartbreakingly poignant.
How should we respond to this latest case of a very public letdown? Of course, by bracing ourselves against the feeding frenzy around the case and its ticker-tape TRP justice.
But also with compassion and a sense of humility: “ There but for the grace of God go I.”
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer firstname.lastname@example.org