Friday, February 15, 2013

Cut out from under him

Pistorius in court. (
Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner, was charged with the murder of his girlfriend. This no legged Olympic sprinter, a man that made us question everything, especially what we were doing with our lives, has fallen from his pedestal to crumble in tears in a South African court room.

We are reminded that those elevated by their actions -- and their sponsors -- to the top of our awareness are just humans, and in some cases really horrible humans. 

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on Nike's endorsement of Pistorius. It may seem strange that Nike, a shoe company, would sign this man.  However it fits perfectly into the company's model.  Nike signed Jordan before he was a proven commodity, Woods before the company made golf products, and Armstrong without any cycling gear, explains the Journal's Matthew Futterman, because each of these athletes represent something more than being elite; they embody the story of overcoming.

If stories are the currency of Nike's business, Pistorius is the equivalent of a blank check. He's the kid who lost his lower legs before he could walk and was told he would never be able to play sports. He battled for the right to race with the fastest men in the world on a pair of carbon-fiber prostheses. He's the rare athlete who doesn't just challenge our notions of fitness, he forces us to reconsider the definition of disability.

Pistorius fits perfectly into Nike's view of the world: That the most powerful thing one can sell isn't comfortable, stylish performance sportswear, it's the concept of possibility.WSJ, 2/15
But as we see in Pistorius -- and all the many others listed above and in the article -- these people are just people. While we want them to be heroes and role models, they are not.  The only thing these people share is an uncommon ability to preform physical tasks extremely well. Often times they stop learning other skills in favor of becoming our gladiators, with companies providing the proverbial thumbs-up with lucrative endorsement deals.

With Kenya's doping scandal heating up, Lance admitting defeat on Oprah, Pistorius' murder charges, Wood's sex addiction, and countless other disappointments, it might be time for us to take a step back from the hero worship that is so prevalent in all sport.

We want to be like Mike. But why not be like the town, the coach, and the teammates of the special needs senior who dressed out and hit a few shots in waning minutes a well won game after years of serving as the team manager? Partly because we will never stop stepping into the batter's box and calling our shot, we will still want to be like Mike.  However, sport is distraction and should be treated as such. Unfortunately these normal people will remain heroes as long as our culture glorifies the win.

Nathan Mitcham carried off the court. (

It was hard not to feel connected to the Nathan Mitcham story.  It tugs at the heart strings, you could say it "is the equivalent of blank check" for the story line we all want to believe to be true for all sport. And then again, the heroes of the Owasso High School basketball story may not turn out to be heroes either. But all of these stories distract us and entertain us, and we don't want to look deeper -- often times we buy in and Just Do It.

To say I am immune to the hero worship would be a lie. I want to run with the best. I am excited when our club's fastest runners are willing to run with me. I get excited when I see local elites win a race because I "know" them. I tweeted at Lauren Fleshman for her entire trip to San Francisco to come to a run with SFRRC last month because I thought it would be super cool.  And regardless of what he says, Youk is dead to me, dead I say.

I don't think it is fair to the athletes or to their fans that the spotlight is placed upon anything besides their athletic ability.  But it isn't just on the athlete or the fans.  For the most part these people aren't CEOs or seasoned political figures, they are just athletes. When we, and the corporations that trade on their success, elevate them beyond the entertainers they are, it gets complicated.  And we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

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