While apartheid has been legally abandoned in South Africa, it can still be a racially uneasy place. But some questions cut across racial lines: Is Oscar Pistorius guilty of murder?
It was a made-for-television story starring Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee running on bladed “legs” in last summer’s Olympic Games, and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a beautiful model. Life in a luxurious gated community. Fame, wanted or not, right up there with South Africa’s idolized soccer players, Bafana Bafana (The Boys).
Think about it – a man who by anyone’s definition is disabled participating in the Olympics, traditionally a place where only legends
belong: the fastest and most durable; the strongest; people who soar highest and go furthest; who combine talent with heart and passion. Athletes with demonstrated ability to endure and transcend pain and to remain focused despite it.
Unique in the world, Olympians are the best of the nations that send them. World-class. And Oscar Pistorius belonged.
Even so, efforts were made five years ago to ban him from competing with the big boys because, get this, his so-called “cheetah legs” gave him an unfair advantage.
Funny that able-bodied runners would be threatened by the introduction into their midst of someone with no legs. You can’t make this stuff up. Legs that were replaced not by bionic ones, but by artificial ones. Oscar didn’t flip a switch and go smokin’ down the track like some crazed stock car. He never cruised into first place. His swiftness wasn’t accounted for by Mercury-like wings affixed to his artificial feet. Like every other athlete, he earned the right to run.
On Valentine’s Day, Oscar Pistorius is said to have murdered Reeva Steenkamp.
For me, the Pistorius story is especially tragic.
I’d probably win in Vegas betting that Oscar Pistorius never intended to be a symbol for many who are disabled. But he was.
It was 2012, mid-summer in London, and the media couldn’t ignore the runner’s Cinderella story. In the final heat, Pistorius ran the 400 meter against record-holder Kirani James. Their exchange of name bibs and embrace at the end of the race was moving; it spoke of mutual respect and the honor James felt to share the track with such a determined, worthy, and ground-breaking opponent. I’d like to think it was James’s way of giving Pistorius the keys to the clubhouse, heretofore for the able-bodied only. Irony of ironies, James is black; Pistorius is white.
Despite this Olympic nod, the Paralympics, which followed, were not televised (not that I could find, anyway.)
Never meaning to, Pistorius put disability smack dab in the faces of people watching at home. There’s always been an element of able-bodied gawking at the disabled; a “somewhere else but not in my neighborhood” flavor. The South African athlete brought it home to their neighborhoods, taking it out of the invisible realm of the Paralympics to the center stage of London in the summer of 2012.
Pistorius generated pride when he won and even when he lost, and the tears that often accompany such moments. He was a winner in a world that often deems the disabled losers.
Pistorius bore a dignity in doing his job and doing it exquisitely.
Pistorius never sought the limelight; he wasn’t boastful or militant.
And maybe that’s why the emotion Pistorius generated for me, as a disabled woman working with others who are disabled, was so great. His victory was not for any cause, although I wanted it to be. I wanted his courage to be the stuff of film, like the young Patty Duke (herself disabled with bi-polar disorder) as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”. Or Tommy, the pinball wizard of Pete Townshend’s rock opera. Of politics, like President Franklin Roosevelt or U.S. Senator Max Cleland.
Heroism is rarely sought by heroes. We make heroes because we need them to lift us from our realities. Heroes overcome where we haven’t been able to. They’re the youngsters still alive in our fantasies, reading comics and surmounting unfairness with a dexterity we only dream about. I struggle as I weigh my need to flout Pistorius’s achievements as a disabled man competing in the regular world, with how I feel about the murder accusation he faces.
I’ve decided to let it rest. The fact will always remain that Oscar Pistorius was the first double-amputee to win a gold medal in the arena of able-bodied world track.
For me, giving that kind of hope stands on its own.
Kathe Skinner is a Relationship Coach, Certified Relationship Expert and Marriage & Family Therapist in Colorado where she conducts communication workshops for teens and parents, couples, pre-marrieds, the invisibly disabled, and the over 50 crowd. Kathe enjoys collaborating with other professionals in order to reach more relationships affected by hidden disability. She sits on the Executive Board of the Invisible Disabilities Association, is a regular contributor to Disability.gov., and is an ardent-and-natural-teacher-without-a-classroom. She has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for over 30 years. More about Kathe at www.BeingHeardNow.com or at her blog, ilikebeingsickanddisabled.com.