This post originally appeared in The Mostyn-Thomas Journal on 18th February 2013.
With thanks to Julie Alix, whose original comment inspired this post.
I will be King
You will be Queen
Though nothing will
Drive them away
We can beat them
Just for one day
We can be heroes
Just for one day
That giddy summer at the London Olympic and Paralympic Games – while David Bowie’s Heroes rang out, again and again, with anthem-like pride – the Oscar Pistorius story was surely the stuff of legend in the making.
Setting the athletic track alight with those Nike swoosh-like blades, Pistorius appeared every inch a sporting god for the technological age, the ideological poster boy for disability equality that blasted through physical – then institutional and attitudinal – barriers, en route to Olympic and Paralympic glory. Even though he missed out on the Olympic men’s 200m final, satisfaction was to be gained from the fact that he was competing as a fellow sportsman and an equal.
Of course, that story wasn’t without its controversies. Who can forget his seething rivalry with Alan Oliviera following the men’s T44 200m final? Even so, Pistorius redeemed himself (up to a point for some of his detractors, it seems) when he finally hit gold in the men’s T44 400m final on – of all days – the last day of the 2012 Paralympics.
Pistorius was certainly a hero for that one day. But there were other days when he wasn’t. When the news broke of his arrest in connection with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his home at supposedly the most romantic time of the year – St Valentine’s Day – it was a heartbreaking day for disability equality.
As I write, Pistorius is said to be on suicide watch, while lawyers wrestle with the charge of premeditated murder. Meanwhile, a bloodied cricket bat and banned steroid drugs are reported to have been found at his home.
The pressures brought by the inevitable media coverage must be enormous. I would not be surprised if equality campaigners were quick to dissociate themselves from the world-class athlete in the wake of the suspicious circumstances surrounding Steenkamp’s death.
Two facts are indisputable: a. somebody has been murdered, and a killer must be held to account for it; and b. Pistorius himself is on trial, with no eyewitnesses to speak of, so the events that took place at that house on St Valentine’s Day must be punctuated with ‘allegedly’. As a friend said the other day, ‘Only Oscar knows the truth.’
To this I must add a third fact. Whatever the media said about that day, the damage has been done. It will take years for the disability cause – which Pistorius was supposed to represent – to get back on track. Even while championing the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the British government were penalising people with disabilities with unrelenting benefit cuts and media scaremongering, to the point where the irreverent Paralympic Opening Ceremony felt compelled to mirror the placard-waving disability rights campaigners outside.
Crucially, what I am asking is: if he DID kill Steenkamp, let’s not demonise Pistorius on account of his disability. Far too many high-profile films – Dr Strangelove, most James Bond films, The Hills Have Eyes, Orphan, and many, many more – make out that a twisted body equates a twisted mind and is therefore the embodiment of pure evil.
That is not fact. What these films do is simply play up non-disabled people’s fears of what disability does to their bodies and minds. In most cases, all it does is highlight our mortality, rather than our flaws. These two must be made distinct, if we are to celebrate properly the qualities that make us human.
Even heroes can be flawed. This is because they are not gods, but human beings that happen to do something of substance that gives us cause to idolise them. That is the stuff that gives legend the potential to become tragedy. We must never lose faith in heroes. The gregariousness that characterises human nature must never be called into question – because we are all flawed.
Right now, there is no tragedy of greater Olympic proportions; no hero looking more flawed, than Oscar Pistorius. But please, let’s make sure that it’s because he is a human being who – in line with standards of Greek tragedy – is susceptible to committing a crime, not because his disability makes him so.