Athletic feats are no window to character

A file photo of South Africa's Oscar Pistorius.

A file photo of South Africa's Oscar Pistorius. (Credit: Getty Images, 2011)

This latest "love the win, not the winner" reminder, brought on by the Oscar Pistorius episode, probably shouldn't be necessary. Anyone vaguely familiar with the human condition in the 21st century has been through the fallen-hero drama many times before.

Still, the old habit of ascribing ideal personal values to those capable of grand athletic feats endures. And, with it, a susceptibility to counterfeit idols.

We cannot yet conclude that Pistorius, the double-amputee who made the astonishing ascent to Olympic competition against the world's best able-bodied sprinters, murdered his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, as charged.

Court testimony in Pistorius' native South Africa has included his claim of self-defense against a suspected intruder, investigators' allegations of a loud pre-shooting argument and the discovery of needles and testosterone (said to be merely an "herbal remedy" by defense lawyers) in Pistorius' apartment.

So far, then, the actual course of events that morning is not known. But what we should know by now is that the inspiring beauty of an athlete's physical triumph is no window on the soul.

Not that momentary sporting feats -- whatever their author's moral fiber -- can't motivate and hearten. As veteran sports columnist Dave Kindred wrote for the website Sports On Earth, watching Pistorius' 2012 Olympic 400-meter run on his carbon-fiber blades -- both his legs were amputated when he was 11 months old -- "was to know the power of the human spirit."

Jackie Robinson forced the public to begin to accept not only a black man's place in a previously all-white society but also his courage against the odds. Billie Jean King legitimized women in what had been an old-boys' club of sports.

Even Lance Armstrong, in what proved to be bogus cycling dominance, gave hope to cancer victims, just as Pistorius demonstrated something miraculous as the self-described "fastest man on no legs." He overturned the definition of "disabled."

Where things get out of hand is with the assumption that sports builds or reveals true character. (All they really reveal is athletic talent.) Football great O.J. Simpson (personal experience here) was among the most accommodating and respectful of interview subjects during his playing career and was legitimately comfortable with fans and teammates.

But to have accepted that as the full Simpson portrait made it difficult to see the double-murder charge against him coming. And the growing trend of packaging sports stars by such ubiquitous image-shapers as Nike -- which take a central narrative such as disability or cancer and magnify that to suggest something approaching sainthood -- can set the less pragmatic citizenry up for disorienting surprises.

However the dismal facts of Pistorius' trial play out, they really have nothing to do with the feel-good, ephemeral victories we witnessed on the track. Those were wins to celebrate; what could have been more appealing and life-affirming?

But repeated evidence requires that the victor himself be considered separately.

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