Pistorius, Phelps, Solo and the Danger of Turning Champions into Heroes

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterOctober 21, 2014

Oscar Pistorius cries in court in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014 during the last day of sentencing procedures where the defense and prosecution will put their case for and against sentencing. Pistorius was found guilty last month of culpable homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  on Valentine's Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Mujahid Safodien, Pool)
Mujahid Safodien/Associated Press

Every four years, but for a brief fortnight, a handful of world-class athletes convene from all reaches of the globe to capture our hearts, enrich our lives and inspire us with wondrous feats of strength and speed.

We call these men and women heroes in the most literal, historic sense. They are an inspiration, not just for the success they achieve, but for all they sacrifice to do so. They are Olympians: a better breed of human being…or so we often hope to believe.

Sometimes the pedestal we place our champions on is warranted, and other times the truth of a person's character lies deep within, behind the layers upon layers of accolades, hard-plated in gold—sometimes silver or bronze, but mostly gold—and protected from ever reaching the surface.

It's easy to compare Oscar Pistorius and Michael Phelps in so many ways, but almost all of them tend to come tethered to each star's athletic prowess.

Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time, in any sport, from any country. He has 22 Olympic medals, including as many gold—18—as the next most decorated Olympian has medals of any color.

Pistorius, known best in Olympic circles simply as the "Blade Runner," overcame immense obstacles in his life—from the amputation of his legs as a baby to the death of his mother as a teenager—to inspire millions of people around the world. Pistorius won six gold medals at the Paralympic Games in his career, part of his eight career medals. He also famously competed in the Summer Games in 2012 amongst able-bodied racers, marking one of the most historic and emotional moments in Olympics history.

The modern Olympics date back to 1896, and there may not be five moments in time more memorable than the time Pistorius took the track in London. And just two years later, the lasting memory of Pistorius is far more sobering.

Antoine de Ras/Associated Press

Pistorius, like Phelps, was able to parlay his performance on the international stage into unprecedented notoriety, fame and fortune. The sponsors rolled up for men like this, from apparel companies and accessory lines to cars and sandwich shops.

Everyone wants to be associated with a winner. Everyone wants to be connected to greatness. Everyone loves a good hero.

After all, they are heroes. Both of them. All of them. Win or lose, just getting to the Olympics is something worthy of revelry. But winning? And winning as much as these men have? Yes, that's even better. That's even more heroic.

Aug 6, 2014; Irvine, CA, USA; Michael Phelps reacts after placing seventh in the 100m freestyle in the 2014 USA National Championships at William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, it's easy to compare Pistorius and Phelps. This isn't just about them. It could be about any great athlete—hell, any famous person whose work inspires us to be better—who comes crashing down all at once. And in some ways, like in the events of the past few weeks, it's incredibly difficult to compare much of anything.

Michael Phelps didn't murder anyone when he got behind the wheel of a car in late September while under the influence of alcohol—his .14 blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit—swerving in and out of lanes at excessive rates of speed in the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore.

Drunk driving while speeding through a tunnel on Interstate 95—who knows what would have happened had Phelps not been stopped by police? Who knows how many people he could have killed with his negligence—the second time in his career he has been arrested for such an egregious offense?

But he didn't kill anybody. Phelps may very well be an imbecile, but he's no murderer. From a strictly legal standpoint, Oscar Pistorius isn't technically a murderer either.

Despite the charges of murder in the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, Pistorius' legal team was able to provide enough reasonable doubt to acquit him of that charge. Instead, the Blade Runner, who admitted to shooting a gun four times through his bathroom door at what he believed to be an intruder, was convicted of culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of a manslaughter charge.

Some 613 days after Steenkamp's death, Pistorius was officially sentenced on October 21 to five years in prison, with an additional sentence of three years off a weapons charge that has been suspended. Over the past 21 months, Pistorius has lost his endorsements, his home, his hero status around the world and his standing as an inspiration to millions of people, and now his freedom.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 17: Oscar Pistorius leaves the North Gauteng High Court after the fifth day of sentencing on October 17, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. The defence and the state have now concluded their arguments and the judge will now d
Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

Many people are outraged at the seemingly light prison sentence, exacerbated by the notion that Pistorius could get as little as 10 months in prison before being moved to house arrest.

It's difficult, again, to connect the dots from what Pistorius did to what Phelps did to what countless other Olympians have done in their private lives away from the spotlight—American soccer star Hope Solo, I'm looking in your general direction. And yet, at the same time, it's not difficult at all.

Because you can swim swiftly or run fast or save shot after shot taken at your net, we, as sports fans, make you out to be a hero. We routinely put you on a pedestal far higher than any medal stand should warrant.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Why? Because you are, in some ways, an extension of us—a representation of our own personal and collective excellence. A symbol of national pride, be it America or South Africa or any nation that competes in games that rarely matter more than once every four summers (or winters).

We don't know you any other time than that amazing, exciting fortnight twice a decade—with the occasional World Championship or World Cup run scattered in between—and on billboards and TV commercials hawking sunglasses and cold cuts.

For Pistorius, his life in the public eye is ostensibly over. The Blade Runner will never be the international inspiration he once was. At worst, he's a cold-blooded killer who got away with murder. At best, he's a horrific cautionary tale who will spend somewhere between one and five years behind bars and the rest of his life in relative shambles.

For someone like Solo, she's been embroiled in the overall domestic violence conversation that's been prevalent in American sports because of the NFL. The starting goalkeeper as the U.S. Soccer team tries to qualify for the 2015 World Cup this week, Solo has become a counterpoint to the domestic violence in the NFL narrative. She continues to play, continues to win and continues to receive historical accolades from U.S. Soccer while her legal proceedings play out.

Having been charged with domestic violence, there have been calls for her to be sidelined, but U.S. Soccer is sticking with its approach to the matter. Solo represented the U.S. on the field as recently as Oct. 17, with the game notes pointing out she recorded her 75th career shutout, an ongoing national record.

Phelps and Pistorius in 2012. A lot has changed since then.
Phelps and Pistorius in 2012. A lot has changed since then.Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

For Phelps, it seems he's floating away from his latest transgression virtually unscathed. His sponsors have stuck by him, and despite being suspended from USA Swimming for six months, which includes next year's World Championships, his standing in the swimming community seems as strong as it was before his arrest. Possibly ever.

In an ongoing poll at USASwimming.org as part of the Golden Goggles Awards, a huge fundraising event for the national swim program, Phelps is currently leading the voting in three categories: Male Swimmer of the Year (currently 44 percent of the vote), Male Race of the Year (42 percent for his Pan Pacific 100m Fly win) and something called the Perseverance Award, in which he has more than double the next closest participant.

Maybe it doesn't matter who you are when you're a hero. Or maybe that's all that matters.

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