Thursday 28 February 2013
Sport and metaphors go together like a horse and carriage, to adapt Sammy Cahn’s famous, er, simile. And there’s no harm in that. Football parlance is replete with witty and lyrical metaphors and similes. From ‘sick as a parrot’ to ‘parking the bus’, football has mined the metaphorical coal seam for all it’s worth.
The problem, however, is when sport itself becomes a metaphor, a parable about broader social concerns. In fact, we take the fetishisation of sport one step further. We expect sporting heroes to be role models, to serve as moral templates. We can’t, it seems, resist the temptation to ascribe powers to sport that it simply doesn’t possess. We don’t just want sport to thrill and entertain us; we see sport as an instrument for social good or evil.
Exhibit A, if you’ll pardon the inappropriate courtroom metaphor, is Oscar Pistorius. We see the role-model fallacy very clearly illustrated in the story of South Africa’s fallen hero. While the protracted drama of Pistorius’ bail hearing was played out last week, the metaphor-builders were hard at work demolishing the old good metaphors and constructing new darker, portentous metaphors. Before the tragic death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, Pistorius had been the ultimate good metaphor: a symbol of disability equality and post-Apartheid reconstruction. He wasn’t just a man who ran very fast on prosthetic blades; he was a role model who, through his sporting achievements, could somehow make the world a better place.
In this sense, Pistorius was a successor to South Africa’s World Cup winning rugby team. When Nelson Mandela presented the William Webb Ellis trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in 1995, the predominantly white rugby team were lauded for uniting the nation and healing the wounds of apartheid. Clint Eastwood even made Invictus, a rose-tinted Hollywood film about the Springboks’ supposed role in unifying the previously fractured Rainbow Nation.
It’s easy to see why the myth of sport’s transformative social powers is so seductive. Sport has the delicious transcendental capacity to take us out of ourselves, to lift us out of the daily drudgery and bring people together. A society which, in all other respects, is divided or atomised can be fleetingly, gloriously conjoined in sporting passion. But a nation that cheers together doesn’t necessarily stay together. The dewy-eyed desire for sporting heroes who transcend social and racial divisions provides comfort food for armchair peacekeepers but, in practice, South Africa’s social and economic problems could never have been solved by the victorious Springboks or by Oscar Pistorius. Indeed the fact that Pistorius’ was heavily armed and lived in gated community is a stark reminder of South Africa’s social and racial tensions. The pass laws have been scrapped but affluent white South African’s live separate lives, fearful of the impoverished black masses.
Inevitably, some see Pistorius’ alleged crime as a product of the extreme pressures and demands of elite sport itself. ‘You have to wonder if it’s wise to admire driven characters who possess the selfishness required to make it to the very top in sport. They’ll call it sacrifice but in plainer terms it’s naked ambition that puts themselves and their performance before everything and everyone’, wrote Euan McLean in the Daily Record. Reports that testosterone-boosting steroids and syringes had been found at the athlete’s apartment led to media speculation that Pistorious ‘shot his girlfriend while in the grip of “roid rage”’. The sub-text is that the sporting imperative to win at all costs turned Pistorius into a violent steroid junkie.
The fall of Pistorius has led some commentators to question whether we should put sports stars on pedestals at all. Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times earlier this month, argues that elite sportsmen are particularly ill-suited to being role models. ‘The mythmaking only gets louder, yet the ability of athletes to live up to these myths is diminishing. In real life, they are becoming less exemplary. That’s because in many sports it’s now almost a professional obligation to take drugs; because athletes as masculine ideals have boundless opportunities for adultery; and because they have got used to everyone saying yes to them, which means they often struggle with challenging human situations.’
I don’t want sports stars to be treated as role models. Not because, as Kuper suggests, they are particularly prone to misconduct. Rather it’s because moral instruction really isn’t their job. But, while I don’t expect athletes or footballers to behave like saints, I don’t want to dispense with sporting heroes altogether. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from Olympians like Oscar Pistorius who strive to push back the boundaries of sporting possibility. But they should be celebrated for their sporting accomplishments, not mythologised as instruments for social good.
reprinted from: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/13399/