The Alleged Killing of Reeva and the Cult of Celebrity Sports

At the end of last month a South African court ruled that athlete Oscar Pistorius would be allowed to return to international competition. Some questioned the wisdom of the ruling as Pistorius is due to stand trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp later this year. Inevitably, the decision to allow the athlete to travel internationally and compete invites the hypothetical 'what if' -- as in 'what if Pistorius had been someone without fame and money?' Would he have been granted the same leniency and freedom of movement pre-trial? Even the more obliging and least cynical would probably regard that as unlikely.

But while the decision to allow Oscar Pistorius to go about business as usual is shocking and outrageous, it's also fascinating because it provides us with almost naturalistic footage of the way prestige and money eat into the justice system and warp and twist its most fundamental mechanisms.

Consider the slick PR job done on Pistorius as he made his various court appearances and public statements in the aftermath of the alleged killing. What strikes you at once is just how little he, himself, actually says. Every word is delivered second-hand by a team of round the clock experts; the phraseology is so meticulously precise that it somehow leaves you feeling cold. A similar set of terms are reeled out with a lulling repetition; the athlete's 'deepest sympathy' is extended to the family of Reeva Steenkamp over and over in a series of sensitive and thoughtful missives which not only reassure the victim's bereft loved ones, but also the world's media as to the bottomless depths of Pistorius' well of tears.

One word achieves precedence above all others. 'Tragedy'. One of Pistorius' lawyers read a statement, allegedly prepared by the defendant, which recounted 'the events of that tragic night'. And again - 'our thoughts and prayers today should be for Reeva and her family, regardless of the circumstances of this terrible, terrible tragedy'. The creators of Pistorius' official website very much want us to know - 'We are praying for everyone touched by this tragedy'.

The repeated use of the word 'tragedy' is far from incidental. It provides a convenient abstraction, an invisible alteration in the dynamics of the case, for by describing the killing as a 'tragedy' it attains an objectivity over and above the people who were involved in it. Pistorius' role becomes somehow secondary; he was almost pulled along by the sweep of larger events. I mean, if you really think about it, he himself was a victim of terrible, implacable circumstance.

If that kind of thinking has you vomiting into your mouth just a little bit, you might want to have a bucket ready for it gets worse. Many journalists would perform a further abstraction: the concept of 'tragedy' was graduated from the specific event of the alleged killing of Steenkamp to Pistorius' life story more broadly.

In this narrative Pistorius steps forward as a tragic hero of the classical type whom the forces of fate have rendered low. 'Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make great' announced the Montreal Gazette with sagacious solemnity while the Guardian's Justice Malala articulated the case with the same tragic tenor, reflecting mournfully -- "Pistorius would redeem us. He ran his guts out, and did. Now he is fallen, and we are lost."

Such affirmations are at once both remarkable and obscene for they achieve a certain sinister alchemy; the event - Reeva's shooting by Pistorius - ceases to be something which happened to her but is transfigured into something which happened to him; in this spin on the tale, heroic Olympian Pistorius becomes both protagonist and victim - Steenkamp's death merely the means of throwing into relief the tragic trajectory of his life.

From the purview of the Pistorius PR and legal teams this makes perfect sense. Trying to describe his life in a series of tragic acts admits the possibility of redemption; the fallen hero who can once more beat the odds and make a triumphant comeback (and attain all the sports contracts and financial rewards to go with). Indeed recent 'leaks' of Pistorius back on the track seem suspiciously like ways of testing the water -- trying to gauge just what the public reaction would be to a full-scale Pistorius return.

But there is also a broader dynamic at work here. The culture of the celebrity sportsperson has in the last few decades grown unhealthy, even perverse. We are talking about young men who find themselves propelled into the limelight; who are given almost limitless press and adulation and raised to the status of gladiators enacting out life and death tussles in the Roman coliseum. But they are not gladiators. They are often immature, inexperienced and ill-equipped -- overwhelmed by the vortex of prestige and wealth they are so suddenly pulled into. This unqualified, almost hysterical admiration can produce a gross sense of entitlement equalled only, perhaps, by the rage the celebrity evinces when their needs are not met.

Theatre -- a contrived sense of melodrama and the obligatory references to Greek tragedy -- has been used to embellish and disguise what increasingly looks to have been an argument which was graduated to murderous proportions. But from within the PR pantomime which followed there was one moment of genuine authenticity. When Pistorius stepped into the docks he broke down and wept profusely. He seemed like a frightened, helpless little boy. The only question is -- were the tears he shed for the woman he had killed, or for the sense of his own glittering future -- now so suddenly snatched away?