- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2013


Back in 1993, Charles Barkley wrote the words for a Nike commercial. You know the one. The camera zoomed in on his face in fuzzy black and white. Those famous five words emerged.

“I’m not a role model,” Barkley said.

Basketballs pounded and sneakers squeaked.

“I’m not paid to be a role model,” he continued. “I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

The words were debated and parsed and, in the end, ignored.

But they were true.

Those sneaker-hawking 27 seconds didn’t change anything. Not in our society. Twenty years later we shove people whose bodies do things we can only imagine into the position of role models. We airbrush real life away. Think we know them, really know them, through social media’s spider web. Exalt them because they jump higher or play through more pain or run faster than us. Call them inspirations. Warriors. Heroes.

And when they experience the same failure and flaws as the rest of us, we profess shock. Confusion. Anger. Betrayal.

Look at the last month. Lance Armstrong doped. Manti Te’o’s girlfriend didn’t exist. A host of major leaguers were linked to a Miami performance-enhancing drug clinic. And Oscar Pistorius, whose name couldn’t be uttered without gushed superlatives during the London Olympics last summer, reportedly pumped four 9 mm bullets into his girlfriend of four months named Reeva Steenkamp last week.

So, the 26-year-old Pistorius sits in a jail cell in Pretoria, South Africa, charged with murder. He claims he thought she was an intruder. Police believe otherwise.

And we’re left with an uncomfortable reality: no matter how we wish otherwise, our role models, our heroes, are human.

The shattered legend constructed around Pistorius still seems fresh, emotive music and artful camera angles that revealed the real story behind the man seemingly every time NBC clicked on during the Olympics. You know, the boy born without fibulas who became South Africa’s most popular athlete with the help of those carbon-fiber Cheetah blades.

The “Blade Runner,” people called him. A man missing both legs below the knee could pound out 400 meters in 45.07 seconds. You couldn’t dream up better evidence of man’s ability to overcome devastating disability. The name became synonymous with inspiration.

How could you not love the story? The Paralympics couldn’t hold him. So, Pistorius became the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics. Carried South Africa’s flag in the closing ceremony.

Somehow we confused athletic brilliance with morality, turned a sprinter into a savior, an ideal because of what his blades did on those synthetic tracks.

There’s another commercial, hastily banished to the Internet’s dark corners by Nike after the killing.

“My body is my weapon,” Pistorius begins in a determined voice touched by his accent.

Each move brings the sound of a gun being cocked. A cyclist snapping shoe onto pedal. A boxer pushing in a mouthguard. A sprinter backing into his starting blocks.

“This is how I fight … how I defend.”

An ominous rustle of drums.

“This is my weapon.”

A gunshot follows as a soccer player kicks a ball. A runner explodes from the blocks. A swimmer plunges into the water.

In real life, three more gunshots followed. They tore through the bathroom door in Pistorius‘ home in a gated community. One in Steenkamp’s head. Hip. Chest. Hand.

The Olympian claimed he mistook her for an intruder, in a country where an average of 43 people are murdered each day. But multiple reports Monday claimed Steenkamp’s head was bashed in with a cricket bat. Stories of domestic problems and a man who was jealous and possessive filled South African newspapers.

A sometime-model and law school graduate, Steenkamp had  retweeted a call to wear black the next day to bring attention to the abuse of women. She didn’t live through the night.

So, the idealized portrait of Pistorius disappeared into a mess of blood and tears and questions.

The same fervor that gripped Pistorius‘ ascension turned to deconstructing his demise. There’s nothing unique in that. We turn strangers into heroes, think we know them because of what their bodies do and what the commercials tell us, then tear them down.

Maybe we’re too quick. Too trusting. Too willing to believe feel-good stories that too often are stripped of the ugly reality. Too ready to draw life lessons from someone who lives between the lines of a soccer pitch or football field. Maybe our role models, the real ones, are outside the lines.

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