Thursday, March 21, 2013

Open the Door for Mr. Muckle!

For us South Africans, and for many across the globe, it is impossible to watch Oscar Pistorius run without a stir of emotion, without wanting to break down and cry and shout with joy. Pistorius is no ordinary hero: he is that rare thing, a man with an almost-impossible narrative. (Justice Malala, The Guardian
Google “Pistorius hero” and you’ll find what you would expect to find: words like “fallen” and “flawed.” In many newspaper and magazine articles Pistorius’ downfall is linked with those of other former sports legends—especially now, because of its chronological propinquity, with that of Lance Armstrong, recently stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping. All the time that the public celebrated the accomplishments of these athletes, asks Jeff MacGregor of, “How much did we really know?”
(Answer: "little.") How many questions went unasked? (Answer: "most.") How much of the "truth" do sportswriters and sports fans really want? (Answer: "Next question, please.")
But, strictly speaking, MacGregor isn’t quite right. The tarnish on the supposed golden crowns was there to be seen. As Malala himself reports,  
There have always been niggling, worrying features to Pistorius. At the London Olympics last year, when he behaved in an unsportsmanlike manner towards another athlete and shocked many, we were reminded of his flaws. . . .There was the drinking and the short temper.
And with Armstrong ("I wrote four books about the guy. All the evidence was out there since 2004 and people will still say there is no evidence”-- 
David Walsh, sportswriter on the Sunday Times), there was, above all, the intimidation and bribery, using his clout within the sport to keep the lid on his doping practices. According to the New York Daily News,
Armstrong was probably the most litigious athlete in the history of sports.
He set a precedent for other athletes who would go on to use guerilla tactics to attempt to intimidate the media or silence accusers.
(Before I go further, it should be noted that while Armstrong has limply admitted to some degree of drug cheating, Pistorius’ killing of his girlfriend has not yet been tried and so we must await his day in a South African court to learn if it was indeed a criminal act.)

But while the Pistorius and Armstrong stories emerged very closely together and became natural fodder for the continuation of the athlete-as-fallen-hero narrative, I prefer to focus on the aspect of their stories that made their athletic success even more striking and their status as celebrities even more elevated. That is, their battles against their misfortunes (Pistorius' disability--being without legs and Armstrong's illness--testicular cancer). I believe that those afflictions led the public to perceive in the two men something even greater than the heroism their athletic feats granted them, and thus made them more immune to critical assessment of their characters by most fans and journalists. The halo effect wasn’t just a product of heroism, but of heroism-cum-sentimentality. Like cute little children, the disabled and the ill are often viewed by us as being innocent of those endearing human qualities the rest of us have—avarice, malice, spite, viciousness, pride, and so on for the next ten pages. 
As a reminder of what sweet little children can do, here is Baby LeRoy dunking W. C. Fields’ pocket watch in a tub of molasses: Fields rightly pays him back with a furtive boot on the backside.

Here from Fawlty Towers is a desentimentalizing view of the disabled--the self-centered deaf lady:

And here is what is probably the best demolishing of reflexive sentimentalizing of the disabled—the destructive Mr. Muckle from Fields’ It’s a Gift