ESPN Blogs
  • Oscar Pistorius trial

Pistorius: The tragic hero who fell to earth

Simon BarnesOctober 21, 2014
Oscar Pistorius was a sensation at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games © PA Photos

Five years. That, and the demolition of a legend. And at the same time, the demolition of one of the great sporting mythologies of the still-new century. That is the final result of the trial of Oscar Pistorius. He has been sentenced to five years in prison for culpable homicide after killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013, a judgment that attempts to balance justice and mercy. Pistorius is a man who tends to attract the biggest words in the language.

As the trial moved with dreadful inevitability towards the sentencing, so Pistorius was revealed across the endless weeks as a tragic hero. I mean that in the classic sense of the term, like Oedipus or Hamlet: a great man brought down by his own flaw, the flaw which forces him to take the inevitable steps toward his own doom.

The reason these terrible events have so much fascination for the entire world is nothing to do with the usual celeb stuff, nothing to do with muck-raking. It's to do with the dreadful truths that lie behind this tragic figure.

Pistorius wept on a number of occasions during his trial © AP

Pistorius in his pomp was a sight to behold: a disabled man sculpted by Michelangelo with heroic pecs, masterful head-carriage and those devastating twin blades. He was not disabled but empowered. Or so it seemed.

He was so brilliant that able-bodied athletes and able-bodied administrators said it wasn't fair to pit him against those with fully functioning limbs. They had a point of sorts - at least in terms of physics and biomechanics - because those blades exploit stored energy, in the manner of a rubber band, and that's something human limbs can't do. (Though fascinatingly, kangaroo limbs can.)

But this ignores the fact that Pistorius is severely disadvantaged at the start and has problems of traction when running a bend.

Pistorius ran the 100 metres in 10.91, a stunning time, but 400 metres was his big event; he had a personal best of 45.07; the able-bodied world record is 43.18. He picked up six Paralympic gold medals, and competed in the 2012 Olympic Games; I was there, and saw him reach the semi-finals of the 400 metres. He also ran for South Africa in the relay and carried their flag in the closing ceremony.

There was no end to the world's over-the-top response to glorious Pistorius. He made us rethink the concept of disability. Pistorius certainly carried himself as if self-doubt in any sphere had never been an option.

Certainly he swaggered through London's greatest summer of sport like Tamburlaine - another tragic hero - riding through Persepolis: lighting up the Olympic Games as he bullied the old institution into inclusivity and then took three medals at the Paralympic Games that followed.

The harrowing details that emerged at the trial have forced us to see Pistorius in a deeper and more complex way

In the course of those few weeks the notion of disability underwent a kind of revolution, especially in Britain. By the end of the summer we all felt enriched. We saw the athletes and the humans where once we would have seen only disability. I was there for every second of the Paralympic Games, and I was never the same afterward. That was true for everyone who was there, and no doubt for everyone who watched on television. And Pistorius was at the heart of that extraordinary process.

He told us that you can be a hero with a flawed body. He told us that you can turn misfortune into advantage. Of course, we knew such things as dry facts, but Pistorius made us understand them with our guts. Pistorius made us see the runner, the competitor, the speedster, the winner: in short, the hero.

And that's what makes the events of last year so hard to deal with. Pistorius was revealed by the trial as a man obsessed by firearms, fascinated by violence, consumed by jealousy and with a massive capacity for rage. He wept throughout his trial in the manner of Homeric heroes.

Allowing the terrible thought to enter our minds: What if Pistorius wasn't really the enviable man he seemed? What if he had something dark burning inside him all along?

It is a thought too horrific to contemplate, but the events of Valentine's Night 2013 and the harrowing details that emerged at the trial have forced us to see Pistorius in a deeper and more complex way. And that has been unconformable for us all.

In the classic tragic manner, Pistorius is revealed as a man who achieved greatness and fell. So we have to reconsider Pistorius, and what he means to us.

The picture of Pistorius, without his prosthetics, on his stumps, helpless in the dark in the grips of God knows what emotions, is the one that remains.

Pistorius forced us to see disability in a new and wholly positive way: and now, as he takes on the role of tragic hero, he forces us to look yet again.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

Recent Posts

Blog Home