Opinionista Antoinette Muller 12 March 2014

The myth of sporting heroes

Sportspeople are far too often burdened with expectations beyond their sporting achievements because society is desperate for heroes. But expecting somebody who achieved something great to be great is dangerous.

Sports stars stretch the limits of the human body, entertain us and inspire us. In a sick world, desperate for heroes, they shoot down their limitations and rise above the rest.

There is only one small problem with all of that: Just because somebody achieves something great, they are not necessarily a great person.

Sports stars are held up as a benchmark for what greatness should be and with that, their achievements on the sportsfield somehow become a symbol for society’s moral standard. They really aren’t, though. You just have to glance through the news stories of corruption and doping and other misdemeanours to notice that great men (or women) aren’t always the ones who achieve great things in sport.

The Oscar Pistorius sitting in the courtroom on trial for murder is a far cry from the Oscar Pistorius many have come to know. Perhaps never before has a sports star fallen from grace quite so quickly or quite so emphatically. He should be held accountable for his actions, certainly, but to assume that he was not capable of committing a heinous act because of his sporting status is profoundly flawed.

Of course, the outcome of the trial is still to be decided, but regardless, it’s hard to believe that he will shake the stigma that goes along with being on trial for committing murder. If he walks away, will everyone welcome his return to sporting competition?

As recently as 2012, footballer Ilombe Mboyo caused a massive uproar. He was convicted and jailed for his part in a gang-rape. While in prison, he joined a programme called “Football in Prison” and, according to those involved, reformed his life. Yet, when he was selected for the Belgian national team, there was outrage. When West Ham tried to buy the striker, there was further outrage from fans and the move was scrapped. When he was called up for the national team, the Belgian FA publicly supported him.

Mboyo’s involvement in the rape was noted to be “passive” and it was suggested that he did not actually participate in the crime, which was perpetrated by a street gang. Yet, with the sentence passed for his failure to intervene, he will be a tainted man forever.

His call-up spurred a much wider and emotive debate on rehabilitation of criminals and how to integrate them back to society, especially those who get involved with a “rough crowd”. While some were on his side, most were vehemently against it.

Since he is a national representative of a country, it is completely understandable that the public feel irked. Society tries to identify with its sporting representatives at a national level and they want those representing their country to act in a certain manner and be of a certain stature. They want those who represent them to reflect a certain kind of person.

The cases of Mboyo and Pistorius are vastly different in many aspects. Mboyo wasn’t exactly at the top of the world when he was called up for Belgium and he had already been convicted, whereas Pistorius was hailed as a hero by many. However, the contexts of the two cases remain relevant in the greater debate of whether sport has a moral obligation to exclude those who have been tainted morally and, if it does, whether that perpetuates the issue sports fans face when they realise their “heroes” aren’t exactly what they thought they were.

Once a sentence has been handed down, the argument is fair enough that, especially at national level, sportspeople should reflect all that’s good and golden; however, to assume that there is a moral code sports people should subscribe to when they sign up for the job is wishful thinking.

Oscar Pistorius was the darling of the 2012 London Olympics. He wasn’t the darling because he was kissing babies and sharing fortunes with charity. Instead, he was the darling because the public – and partly the media – created a false perception of his character based on his achievements. There was already evidence then that Pistorius wasn’t such darling: the speeding, the incident with the pistol firing, and even his strop over one of his competitor’s blades. But we saw what we wanted to see.

Many dismissed the strop over the blades during the 2012 Paralympics and found some or other excuse for his behaviour because society automatically assumed that somebody who had achieved such greatness must be great. It was compelling to see how easily and rabidly fans could be swept up in a fantasy they desperately wanted to be true – a reflection of how desperate the world was for something bright to emerge from the darkness.

However, reality has proven time and time again that it is unrealistic to place unwarranted non-sporting demands on sports stars. It is simply silly to be confused or feel betrayed when these unrealistic demands are not met.

That sport plays a crucial role in society cannot be disputed. That sportspeople go on to achieve great things is vital. It can inspire a nation and individuals. Sport can change lives. Those who participate in it are crucial in society. However, sport stars are just sport stars. They do not sign a code of conduct and they do not subscribe to decorum of any sorts. Therefore, it is society and the media’s responsibility to separate on-field achievements from the person and his or her character.

“I’m only human” is the easiest excuse when somebody makes a mistake.

How about we start saying: “I am only human” when somebody achieves something great? DM

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