Fallen Heroes

Linda Daniels

The charge of murder against sports hero Oscar Pistorius has grabbed the world’s attention as the trial unfolds in a dramatic fashion. While the golden boy of athletics fights for his freedom and reputation, the ongoing trial brings up memories of many other sporting heroes who have tested their human fallibility in the courts or in the trial of public opinion.

Former cycling demi-god Lance Armstrong won the world over with his sporting achievements as well as his personal battle with cancer, which he famously overcame.  Fans were left stunned earlier this year when Armstrong admitted to doping - a claim he consistently and vociferously rejected when put to him in the past.

In 2009, Tiger Woods reputation lay in tatters after his marital infidelity with several women was revealed. Formerly the World No. 1 golfing champion, Woods was the world’s highest-paid according to Forbes for several years.

Other notable local sporting heroes to have recently stumbled while in the bright lights of fame and lauded achievement were Jacques Freitag; the former world high jump champion who was released late last year on bail following his arrest for alleged drug possession. Hezekiel Sepeng won the silver medal in the Olympic 800 metres final in Atlanta in 1996. He was the first South African man to win a track and field Olympic Medal since 1928. Sepeng was banned from competition from May 2005 to May 2007 after a positive doping test for nandrolone.

In 2001, Johannes "Hansie" Cronje, the Captain of the South African national cricket team in the 1990s, was banned for life from professional cricket for his role in a match-fixing scandal.

CapeTalk/702 resident psychologist Dr. Helgo Shomer believes that we are all to blame when our heroes reveal themselves as flesh and blood.

“We do build people up. We have this culture of heroes and we need them but whether those people are moral and ethical we only asses later on. You see, when everything goes right the public protects that person, the press protects that person. You don’t want a tainted god and a tainted hero, so we are responsible for that very protected space in which we put them and then we are surprised that they might fail. Gods don’t fail, do they?”

Shomer points out that the elevated status given to sporting heroes is a world where the air high-up is a little bit different.

He explains: “It’s a rare atmosphere, it’s an unbelievable height, way above anybody else and now you are living in a universes where you are known left, right and center.  Your face is recognized everywhere you are seen to be someone very, very, very special  and with that comes a feeling of omnipotence  and  the feeling that you are untouchable …where the air you breathe is better than the next person.”

It appears that at the apex of fame and fortune, is an entourage of yes-men, including the press. Shomer points out that in the alternate reality of fame, transgressions are often overlooked.

“You do expect that everybody says yes, that is the pattern …so you don’t hear in the end the “no” because it is not expected because it’s not part of your world.  Everybody’s got to fall at your feet…whether in politics or sport, it is about adoration and with adoration comes the feeling that I am not a normal human being, forgetting that your flesh your blood is just the same as the next person’s.”

While the excesses of an elite athlete’s life are well-documented, what it takes to get there is total commitment and focus.

Sports Psychologist Kirsten van Heerden was a member of the South African swimming team for 13 years and can relate to the pressures of competitive sport.

Given that athletes are completely goal-orientated towards specific sporting events, van Heerden describes her work as an assistant to that goal. She says a sports psychologist is there to help “athletes perform to the best of their ability under huge amounts of pressure and stress and really looking at the athlete as a whole to see how they can manage themselves and manage their lives.”

She goes further: “Athletes spend many, many hours training and our job is to help them with the mental skills. Unless you’ve been there it is difficult to understand the pressures that elite athletes are under. It’s no excuse for certain behaviors but at the same time it’s a pressure cooker environment in competitive sport.  A lot of athletes feel huge pressure to perform and live up to expectations and very often athletes are very hard on themselves and we expect a lot of high profile athletes. There are public expectations as well, for example in South Africa sport is part of our national identity. It’s a slightly altered reality in that your whole life is focused on this one particular goal. A lot of people can be sucked into it because it is an incredible profile, lots of money is being thrown at you, and relationships can break down. It’s basically the celebrity high life. It’s fame and fortune really and it’s very different from the way most of us will experience life.”