Oscar Pistorius, Sport and Life

Rod Dixon
"Happiness is the activity of the soul expressing complete virtue." -- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

"All I want to do is drink beer and train like an animal." --Rod Dixon, great Kiwi runner

Last night I watched the great sports documentary The Two Escobars. It's a must see for anyone interested in the intense and troubled relation between sports and society. In a prior post discussing the Lance Armstrong case, I wrote that part of what made his case so enthralling and ultimately tragic is the blurring of the lines between sport and life.

The Two Escobars tells that tale again, marking over and over again how the clean, crisp, well-refereed, and meritocratic space of the soccer field provided escape from the turmoil and violence and uncertainty of Colombian life. Then, how awfully and inexorably, the value of that space as a moment of escape became so great that it was consumed by the very forces that it initially was created to escape. No one could control Colombia without controlling soccer, but that control was valuable and possible only if soccer were free. As soon as it became clear that soccer was subject to the same forces that it was trying to escape, the whole game was ruined.

These thoughts of the great and necessary tension between sports and life were in my head when I heard the Oscar Pistorius news, and so my reaction to the story has been colored by them. Here we have a man who is in many respects using sports as a vehicle for social change. He was using the great lever of sports to push society in new directions. This push was controversial from the outset, as the lever of sports only works through the purity and fairness of sports, and there were a lot of questions from the beginning about whether Pistorius' prostheses gave him fair or unfair advantage.

No matter which side you came down on in this debate (for the record, I tended to follow Science of Sport's view that Pistorius' advantages were unfair), it was impossible to ignore the difficult questions that Pistorius raised about the nature of fair play and the access of the disabled to sports. How, for example, is it possible that we are talking about a double amputee actually being advantaged in sport?! Pistorius troubled and continues to trouble the concept of what counts as a "natural" body, an unaided performance, and he was simultaneously inspiring and controversial for this reason. Whether he won a medal or not was almost immaterial -- his success transformed the culture of track and field and opened questions that cannot so quickly be forgotten. He was intent on forging new ground in sport, and like most great people who move social opinion, he did not wait for opinion to settle -- he was committed in his view, defiant even. That's really admirable.

And now, of course, this awful event and tragic event. His girlfriend shot 4 times on Valentine's Day at 4am in his own home, with his guns. A charge of premeditated murder.

What does this have to do with The Two Escobars? Or with the Aristotle and Dixon quotes? The idea that keeps flashing before my mind is that the virtue that sport develops is not complete virtue. Sport demands a narrow sort of virtue. It asks us to be single-minded, goal oriented, fixated, stubborn, confident. These qualities are only amplified in elite athletes, and perhaps more so in elite athletes who are not only trying to be successful at their sport, but to strike at its most basic foundations.

The point that Aristotle was making was that human happiness requires the development of all of our capacities. Athletics, even at its best, requires the intense development of many virtues, but precisely because of its artificial nature it does not require the full development of human virtue. Athletes like Andrés Escobar, Meb Keflezghi, Bernard Lagat, Leo Manzano, and maybe even goofy old Ryan Hall remind us that it is possible to have the fuller human virtues while being an athlete. But this tragedy that has happened to Pistorius, the woman he shot, the people who loved him, remind us that the athletic virtues are not fully overlapping with the human virtues.

The Rod Dixon quote is telling. In the end, sports is escape from a real and both over- and under-civilized world into an artificial world where we can forget the world, drink beer, train like animals, become more animal. That escape gives us a place to practice, to train, to develop habits, to return to the world refreshed. It can give us the leverage on life to live better, sometimes. But happiness, as Aristotle reminds us, has to be won in the full contest and context of an entire life.

For Pistorius's family and friends, this story, I'm sure has more angles than I could ever know. Maybe no one will ever know what happened last night, outside of the fact that two lives were ruined. The life of Oscar Pistorius has long ago been reduced to a narrow fable for the public. The meaning of this fable has now made an odd turn. Having been a symbol for the broadening of the meaning of and access to sport, he has now become a symbol of the narrowness of sport in relation to life.

We are left holding the two worlds of sport and life together, trying to piece them back together, as if they were supposed to fit, as if anything really ever fits, as if the rules made sense, as if the referees were unbiased, as if there were any rules at all.


  1. Great column! The last paragraph defines the issue for us, the fans. Well said!

  2. Somewhat related, Aimee Mullen has presented on her prosthetics twice at TED, and her experiences. I lean toward the camp that Pistorius shouldn't have been able to compete due to the differences. But in a way it's wonderful that we are considering a double amputee as having unfair advantages.

    The segment starting at 7:00 - 8:00 minutes is great.

    The opportunity of adversity:

  3. Sadly just another male with anger, self control issues who channels it thru sport.

    1. Yes.

      "Sport demands a narrow sort of virtue. It asks us to be single-minded, goal oriented, fixated, stubborn, confident."

      Are these virtues when out of balance?

      Sports do not build character. They reveal it.

  4. I found your blog from another blog I follow, and now I feel I might say I, we (my wife and work friends) are following the Oscar's and it's not about the best actors or movie, it's about a moments stupidity that has ruined 2 families, and while the trueth unfolds (and we hope it will) our lifes continue while theirs hang in limbo...

    I hope to be popping in again and again to see what else you write about.


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