x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A very dark period for sport

The last few months have seen doping scandals, match-fixing allegations and a gruesome death that will be remembered for years to come.

London Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged on February 14 with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa. It was a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. Martin Meissner / AP Photo
London Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged on February 14 with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa. It was a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. Martin Meissner / AP Photo

"You have no idea what the Tour de France is," the former champion said. "We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here …" The cyclist proceeded to reel off a list of drugs and pills that ultimately leave their users broken men.

What sounds like revelations from the past decade are, in fact, the words of the Frenchman Henri Pelissier in 1924, a year after he had won the Tour, and at a time when the use of illegal substances was rampant in that sport.

The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same. Except that, as Lance Armstrong would attest, the consequences these days are far more severe.

Match fixing. Doping. Domestic violence. Guns. And, ultimately, fallen idols. Scandals, and tragedies, have existed for as long as the sports themselves have.

The Black Sox contrived to lose the 1919 baseball World Series. The fall of Ben Johnson, the world's fastest man, in 1988. The gruesome OJ Simpson drama in which the former American football star was acquitted of murdering his wife and a young man but later, in true Al Capone style, was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping and sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Even taking into account those instances, and many others, the past few months are set to go down as one of the darkest periods in the history of sport.

The Armstrong saga. Allegations of widespread match fixing in global football. Racism rows. The Australian doping scandal. And, last week, the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp, which led to murder charges against the South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner".

The sheer number, and concentration, of these scandals, although by no means all comparable, has left sporting fans, armed with a voice of their own on social media forums, more cynical of athletes than perhaps at any time in the past century.

The Pistorius case, in particular, continues to shock. Leaked revelations claim the presence of a cricket bat covered in blood at the crime scene, alleged further evidence against the man who competed, to worldwide acclaim, at the 2012 London Olympics.

According to South Africa's City Press newspaper, the police have "a 'rock-solid' case against the athlete", after citing sources close to the investigation as saying that Steenkamp's skull was crushed and that she was shot at close range.

While the cases cannot be compared, Pistorius's fall from grace in his native South Africa echoes, even surpasses, Armstrong's remarkable demise in his native United States and around the world. Both had been held up as examples of what can be achieved against seemingly insurmountable odds.

It remains that the goodwill garnered from defeating cancer and overcoming the handicap of losing both your legs, was genuinely merited.

These dramatic background stories have meant that media's acclaim and fans' hero worship elevates modern athletes to levels that Pelissier, the Black Sox, and even the more recent Johnson could only dream about. Consequently, when the fall comes, it tends to be far more devastating.

Ultimately, these athletes have proven to be the latest idols with feet of clay, as so many were before them. Those convicted certainly deserve no sympathy, irrespective of the sweat and years that was invested into becoming champions.

But the almost crass wallowing that some of the press outlets, never mind Twitter trolls, have indulged in over the past week indicates the public is not blameless in creating those false idols. Of course, "build them up to knock them down" is hardly a new phenomenon and neither is the heightened scrutiny that modern technology and rolling news bring with them.

Perhaps it is time for a change of attitude, and here the new cynicism may not be a bad thing. Lower the expectations we demand of these fallible athletes, and we are less likely to be disappointed, or in some cases hysterically slighted, when they fall off their pedestals.

For those of us with lifelong love affairs with sports, this will not come without a genuine degree of sadness, a betrayal of all those cherished childhood memories of sporting heroes. But in light of events over the last few months, what choice are we left with?

If you wonder what became of Pelissier, his story had a suitably tragic end. After a prolonged dispute with the Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange over the harsh conditions of the race, he quit cycling in 1927. Eight years later, after attacking his lover with a knife in a domestic dispute, she shot him five times with his own gun, killing him on the spot.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

akhaled@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE