An Olympic myth
Eventually, they all let us down.
That's just how things work in sports. So at some point, Oscar Pistorius was going to disappoint people. It's just that no one could have ever predicted that Olympian Oscar Pistorius would someday be charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Pistorius certainly isn't the first athlete to tumble from a lofty pedestal. He's also not the first athlete to be charged with murder.
Yet so many people are shocked about this. Some are angry at Pistorius, and others feel as though he perpetrated a fraud.
Murder, as a crime, is shocking -- and should be. And I get that Olympic athletes are imprisoned by our naive ideals more so than other athletes. Representing a country comes with far different expectations than a team.
But something else is at play here.
The real reason some people are stunned that Pistorius is in this position is he's disabled.
Yes, the same prosthetics that made Pistorius a novel Olympic story and turned the South African sprinter into an international star also prevent people from grasping that Pistorius, regardless of the outcome of this case, isn't the person people imagined him to be.
The media turned Pistorius into not just a legend but also what some in the disabled community call "super crip."
As a double amputee competing against able-bodied sprinters, Pistorius practically became immortal. Even the other Olympians admired him. The eventual gold medalist in the 400 meters, Kirani James of Grenada, famously exchanged bibs with Pistorius after their semifinal heat.
Pistorius certainly gloried and benefited from his inspirational image. Before this murder case, he had major endorsement deals with Nike and Oakley, and he reportedly was set to earn $2 million this year in endorsements alone.
But we have a bad habit of patronizing the disabled, even if it's just an awkward attempt to highlight something good.
William Peace, a disabilities studies scholar and activist, wrote on his blog Bad Cripple that the media was obsessed with turning Pistorius and other noteworthy disabled figures into a "mythic being," conveniently ignoring that disabled people have the same issues and complexities as everyone else.
"The general public in particular will see this as a great fall," said Peace, who speaks at colleges nationwide about the media's harmful coverage of disabled people. "There will be resentment because he's disabled. This is a perfect example of how grossly misrepresented disabled people are in the mass media."
There are countless examples of the media making athletes into heroes and engaging in undeserved myth building. But it's even worse when it comes to athletes with disabilities.
Before now, the stories about Pistorius centered on what he had to overcome as a double amputee or questioning whether his being allowed to compete with his advanced prosthetics against able-bodied sprinters gave him an unfair advantage.
We wanted to believe the myth. Few of us followed Pistorius through the Paralympic Games in London, where after failing to defend a title, he hypocritically accused a fellow racer of using better prosthetics to gain an advantage. The same accusation he fought to race against able-bodied sprinters just weeks before. The stories were posted. Few read them. Few wanted to see the man behind the narrative.
Now, after Steenkamp was shot, we're starting to learn more about the real Pistorius, and it doesn't exactly fit the triumphant amputee narrative that the media continually pushed.
We're learning that Pistorius had a serious fascination with guns and, according to South African police, had been involved in previous domestic incidents. Couple that with a 2009 boating accident in which South African news media reported empty alcohol containers were found on his boat, and it sure seems like another example of the facts being overlooked because they might get in the way of a good story.
Pistorius clearly wasn't perfect despite being characterized as the ultimate disabled do-gooder. Some of the assumptions made about Pistorius' character were because of the way he competed. He's a great athlete and earned his way onto the Olympic stage. But let's also not pretend that the coverage of him didn't fit the lazy stereotypes that a lot of us have about disabled people.
Pistorius isn't any more compassionate, sensitive, moral or determined just because he's disabled. And if he is any of those things, it doesn't have anything to do with his being an amputee.
"That's like someone saying, 'You're a credit to your race,'" Peace said. "Wow, you're a great person even though [you're African-American]. It's the same thing with being disabled. If you become successful, we're not regular. We exceeded the expectations that people placed on us. If we fail, people say, 'Well, that's OK, you're disabled.'"
Peace referred to an ad campaign that featured Pistorius preparing to run against a little girl, a quadruple amputee wearing running prosthetics like Pistorius'. Pistorius made it his Twitter avatar. The slogan on the poster was, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude."
"That's classic inspiration porn," Peace said. "Melt your heart. There's a kid in it. A disability. Make everyone want to cry or applaud. The focus is on the image, not the reality."
The reality is that most disabled people don't lead the kind of life that Pistorius led. They don't have access to state-of-the-art prosthetics. Most don't date supermodels.
There's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from any athlete, and I'm not suggesting Pistorius' being a double amputee competing at the Olympic level isn't significant.
But we never really know athletes, especially the popular ones. And romanticizing the narrative to suit perceptions eventually makes us look foolish.