Oscar Pistorius and other fallen idols in the world of sport

Paul Howarth
oscar pistorius 300x225 Oscar Pistorius and other fallen idols in the world of sport

Oscar Pistorius bows his head

However you view the events at Oscar Pistorius’s Pretoria home yesterday, it’s a tragedy.  For those who’ve been living on Mars, Pistorius’s girlfriend – model Reeva Steenkamp – was shot dead.  Police initially refused to confirm that the suspect they were questioning was Pistorius (standard practice in South Africa, apparently), although they did make the baffling decision to tell us that they’d been called to incidents ‘of a domestic nature’ at the address in the past.

It’ll be months before we know whether or not he’s guilty.  But, whatever happens, it’s hard to see anything other than the ruination of the man who’s arguably been the single-most important sportsperson in the world over the last five years.

As such, his is likely to be the most spectacular plunge from grace by a sporting figure in history.  Here are some other fallen idols, whose descents I’ve attempted to rank.

2. Ben Johnson

From the holder of the most prestigious title in sport to ultimate villain in 72 hours.  In the famous words of Des Lynam, “I’ve just been handed a piece of paper here that if it’s right, it’ll be the most dramatic story out of these Olympics or perhaps any others.”

I probably shouldn’t say this but, in my book, that 1988 final remains the greatest race in the history of the 100m.  The look on Carl Lewis’s face!  And four men under 10 seconds for the first time.  It’s been branded ‘the dirtiest race in history’ but at the time it was pure adrenaline-filled theatre.

The saddest part of the whole tawdry business, as I recall it, was that ‘Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’ became ‘Jamaican-born sprinter Ben Johnson’ in many sections of the media.  Talk about institutional racism.

3. Lance Armstrong

It must be nigh-on impossible for the few journalists who continued to throw awkward questions at Lance Armstrong at the height of his fame, such as the admirable Paul Kimmage, not to be smug now.  Kimmage was once roundly bullied by Armstrong at a press conference for using the phrase ‘the cancer of cycling’.  It’s not certain whether he was referring to drugs in the sport or Armstrong specifically.  Armstrong, who had overcome testicular cancer in the 1990s, chose to interpret it as the latter and lashed out.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the entire affair was Armstrong’s likening of his current situation to the challenge he faced when he found out he had cancer.

It might help the public’s perception of him if he sounded even a little apologetic.

4. Hansie Cronje

A second erstwhile favourite son of South Africa on the list.

I walked past Cronje at Centurion in Pretoria during the rain-affected fifth Test of England’s 1999-2000 tour.  We’d already lost the series but on the final day, news filtered through that he and England captain Nasser Hussain had agreed to forfeit an innings each to ‘make a game of it.’  For us spectators, it felt like a bit of recompense for what had been a frustrating few days; the sun had shone almost constantly since a deluge on the first day but the wet outfield had prevented any play until day five.

The enterprising agreement by the captains produced a brilliant, one-day-style run chase, England reaching their target of 249 for the loss of eight wickets when Darren Gough pulled Nantie Hayward for four through midwicket with just five balls to spare.  Only in subsequent years did the game look suspicious and, sure enough, it emerged that Cronje had accepted money and a gift from a bookmaker in return for the early declaration.

Cronje’s death at the age of 32 in a plane crash meant South African cricket was able to move on rather more swiftly than would’ve been possible if he’d stayed alive.  One of the reasons that current captain Graeme Smith was ushered into the captaincy at the tender age of 22 – apart from being an admirable character – was that he had no links to Cronje.

5. Tiger Woods

Tiger’s last on this list as his fall from grace has not broken him.  Sure, in the words of The Smiths, ‘at the time it was terrible’, and his carefully-staged apology press conference made for cringe-worthy viewing.  However, he’s emerged from the scandal if not unscathed then at least intact.  He even retained his lucrative association with Nike – unlike Armstrong, who was summarily dumped – although who knows how much money he forfeited from the dozens of other sponsors who walked?

I suppose that in the public consciousness, serial adultery is more forgivable than making a mockery of an entire sport.  Even though the base crime is essentially the same: lying.  People haven’t forgotten Tiger’s exposure as a prolific philanderer but at least he’s back doing what he’s most famous for.  Next question.  Is he good enough these days to add to his 14 majors?

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  • amcgrath

    Was Tiger Woods nonsense really more of a fall than OJ Simpsons?

  • Magnus Andersson

    Awesome write up, Paul!

  • John Shaw

    Tiger Woods did not fall anywhere; all he did was get his end away and why not. All this crap about sexaholic is exactly that – shyster crap…

  • AlterJoe

    Surely OJ Simpson should be number one on this list, even if you had to drop off Tiger Woods, who never even committed a crime and remains an amazing golfer.

  • Jo ii

    Tiger Woods?

  • Greedy Ginger Pig

    Sorry, Paul, but I hate the fallen idol trope.

    Sometimes we’re all supposed to be the victim because we’ve been told a terrible lie. Only, our welling righteous indignance needs us to have believed the lie, and in many cases that would have required turbo charged naïvety. MPs, journalists, bankers, Armstrong, Woods… I dread to think of the ruckus when the truth about Santa leaks out. Other times, there is genuine surprise, an actual crime and a real victim. Pistorius, OJ, Saville… These stories are ugly because they’re captivating. Condolences will be trotted out, of course, but without the idol we wouldn’t have cared enough to listen.

  • Michèle Brach

    I agree with other comments. I don’t see how Tiger woods fits in here and I never understood why his philandering had anything to do with him playing golf? Surely OJ Simpson springs to mind immediately- murder is a serious crime, being unfaithful is not.

  • paul_howarth

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Good debate.

    I feel I ought to reply. What I was trying to do was present a range of individuals who have all fallen off a pedestal as far as the sporting public is concerned. The ranking was intended as a fairly arbitrary measurement of the extent to which each one fell; it was NOT intended to be a measurement of the seriousness of each person’s crime or misdemeanour. And the list is intentionally not exhaustive; I could have given ten examples rather than five but (a) you’d be more likely to stop reading and (b) I wanted you to come up with your own examples.

    O.J. Simpson is good shout so thanks to everyone who suggested him. Consider him added to the list.

    However, being a little provocative, one could argue that his is less of a fall from grace than others since it had an impact primarily in the USA. All of the characters on my list tumbled on a global scale.

    Thanks again for taking the time to contribute. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

  • Bollins

    There are two kinds of fall here aren’t there? Some are sporting cheats (Johnson, Armstrong) and others fell in unrelated ways (Simpson, Woods). The former are part of a large group (the Pakistani cricketers; Dean Richards and Bloodgate; Maradona and the hand of God) Because cheating is hard to resist. The latter are different because they remind us that sport may be a matter of life and death, but its nothing when set against real life and love and death. And that’s why we watch sport – to forget the real big bad stuff. And, of course, why we read and write about it…

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