The South African para-athlete has ended up disabling those who were already disabled. There was a time when he could have justly claimed to have achieved the opposite.
There is a motto that Oscar Pistorius has lived by: you’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have. Elite sportspersons often seek to define themselves through such simplistic assertions, a sentence to sum up the narrative of their life. It’s a curious temptation, to reduce the myriad delights of your life to a few words. Yet, to Pistorius’s credit, he got closer than most.
It’s a shame that he disabled himself through the exercise of his own will as well. For what is life in prison if not an imposed disability? Physical disability does not limit you if you can celebrate the difference – a different manner of living, a different mode of moving about. A jail tenure, though, limits you in more ways than one. Not only are you restricted in your movement, your personality is trapped within a cage too. It changes you deeply.
Recalling the words of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, the protagonist in the film Scent of a Woman, seems proper here. Albeit in a different context, he summed up the pain of a soul altered irrevocably: “But there is nothin’ like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is… no prosthetic for that.” There are, of course, prosthetics to use in case you seek to become an elite athlete as Pistorius knows too well.
An insult to justice
His story was inspiring. ‘Blade Runner’ they called him. But the human fear of the cyborg reared its ugly head; some thought he was a danger to equal competition. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) conducted tests in 2007 which declared that he had an unfair advantage over other athletes with ‘normal’ legs. He was barred from participating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was disabled by his disability.
Months before the Beijing Games, though, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne ruled in his favour. It was ruled that the test did not replicate the conditions of a 400-metre race, among other factors. Pistorius was no longer disabled by his disability. The motto of his life made sense to him; it made sense to many others as well.
His story resonated around the world until it took an ugly turn in 2013 when he was accused of murdering his partner Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius was initially given a five-year sentence for manslaughter as he claimed that he shot Steenkamp when he mistook her for an intruder in his bathroom. At the very least, it was an act of immense recklessness. At its worst, it was an act of murder. That was the charge pressed against him after Pistorius was convicted of manslaughter alone. He was finally found guilty of murder last year and that led to the extension of his jail term by another year now.
Six years – that’s all Pistorius got. According to South African law, 15 years is the mandatory punishment for murder. Pistorius was nearly spared despite being pronounced guilty. “It is an insult to women in this country,” said the Women’s League spokeswoman Jacqueline Mofokeng of the governing African National Congress (ANC) to Reuters. It was an insult to justice, others thought.
To understand why many think Pistorius was let off easily, it is important to understand what he represents through his body of conflicting visions. He is indeed abled by his abilities. It’s strange to consider the colour of one’s skin or gender as a kind of ability but through the exercise of those privileges Pistorius became a space for a conflicting battle.
The South African sprinter was born in one of the most affluent areas of Johannesburg, Sandton. It is known countrywide for the rich who often live in high-rise buildings and shop in opulent malls. This is where Pistorius spent his early days. He is a white man in a country with the history of apartheid. He is a white man in a place where the economic benefits multiply if you are not black. He is a white man in a world where the interests of male athletes are often prioritised.
Pistorius is also a celebrity in a country that cherishes its global stars. Indeed, it is possible that Steenkamp might have not suffered a cruel end if the South African authorities had not treated the athlete differently from others. During the prosecution of this case, it was demonstrated that Pistorius could be reckless with the gun in his hand.
A video clip showed him nonchalantly shooting at a watermelon; a more dangerous incident took place in 2013 when he fired some shots with his friends in a Johannesburg restaurant. According to South African law, misuse of a firearm is seen as a serious offence and it should have led to the confiscation of his gun. But his special status in the country ensured that those incidents were not given their due attention. Pistorius was different.
A privileged face
His apparent fascination for guns could be attributed to the assumption that he was an ‘adrenalin junkie’ like his brother. This was the term Pistorius used in his autobiography to describe himself and his sibling. The adrenalin clearly could get the better of him. As his celebrity status grew further, he became aware of his position. The privileges that became available to him were readily exploited. Cars, guns and a love for luxurious life came to hold importance for Pistorius.
It was through this cosy celebrity network in South Africa that he met Steenkamp, and the two began their relationship. Pistorius was a renowned man given to reckless dispositions but he was different. He was also a person who gave hope to many disabled athletes that they could overcome the obstacles that precluded their participation in able-bodied sport. He was the one who had made it to the other side.
Para-athletes often have to battle their characterisation as the ‘Other’. They lie on the margins of mainstream sport, failing to break in as their enterprise is never considered good enough to match able-bodied sport. It is a curious tendency to hold top-level male sport as the unquestionable gold standard of all sporting activity. Elite sport remains resistant to any attempt at a celebration of difference.
This is the reason why winning a Grand Slam in best-of-three sets matches is never seen as equal to winning it in five like the men do. The arbitrariness of this difference does not seem to lose its value. Para-athletes continue to function as second-class citizens for this precise reason. Sport is an exercise for able-bodied males. Anybody else who enters it needs to respect the status quo.
This is why Pistorius’s achievement was remarkable. He broke the barrier by participating alongside able-bodied humans. He did not start a revolution but he gave the struggle for equality a reference point. It was interesting that he did this while continuing to exercise his racial and gender privileges. He put a face on the disability sport movement, a face that gave him benefits others were still hoping to gain.
When Pistorius failed to qualify for the 400m race at the London Olympics, he was taken to the Games regardless as part of the relay side for 4x100m. The selection criteria were twisted because of the high esteem he was held in by corporate sponsors and administrators in South Africa. No rules were broken per se but Pistorius’ privilege ensured that he was on the plane to London. South Africa needed its global face at the biggest spectacle in the world.
Disabling the disabled
It is a measure of his worldwide fame that his court trial has caught the attention of people across the globe. When Pistorius first faced court proceedings, a friend of this writer asked with a hint of exasperation why this case mattered. Back then, the answer remained elusive. But now, upon further reflection, the mist has lifted over the issue. Pistorius’s story matters because we live in a world where disabled people continue to fight for an equal status; men continue to dominate sport in particular and society in general, and the lives of the rich and famous white people matter more.
The six-year sentence for Pistorius, hence, seems like a curious compromise. Judge Thokozile Masipa delivered a sympathetic judgement. She thought Pistorius’ remorse and attempts at rehabilitation carried greater weight than his lack of restraint and an intent to kill. Perhaps the judge was also sympathetic toward a disabled man who had provided inspiration to people across the world. Such is how the able-bodied patronise those whom they consider ‘lesser beings’.
Pistorius has already served a year in jail for manslaughter and he could be granted parole in two years’ time. You cannot rule that possibility out considering South Africa’s obsession with its heroes. Yet, for the time he’s away in jail, he will seek to protect his spirit from amputation. One suspects, however, that the conflict of identities within Pistorius has already wreaked its damage. The fear of the cyborg in his case might have something to say for itself. Pistorius has ended up disabling those who were already disabled. There was a time when he could have justly claimed to have achieved the opposite.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.