OPINION: Is there a way back for the Blade Runner?
With Oscar Pistorius preparing to be released from prison on parole on Friday, he can now tentatively look towards the future. He can begin to consider what the coming years may be like, post jail.
This is, of course, keeping in mind the fact that he will still be serving out the remainder of his five year prison sentence at home under strict conditions and will by no means be a 'free man'. It's also considering the fact that he could very well land up back in jail serving a potential fifteen year jail term if the Supreme Court of Appeal convicts him of murder in November.
But there will be a slight sliver of light now for the athlete, as he returns to some semblance of normality at his uncle's Waterkloof mansion. He will no longer be bound by the limitations of a correctional facility and will be able, to some degree, to resume his own reality.
This beggars the question - will he ever be able to return to his career as a competitive, elite athlete? The answer seems a ridiculously, blatantly obvious one. But it is worth properly interrogating. I mean why the hell not, we interrogate every other tiny detail around this case anyway.
On the face of it, there is no way possible Pistorius could ever have a shred of hope of returning to his former glory. His Icarus-like fall from grace has been too dramatic, the trial too messy and the publish image far too tarnished. It's been nearly two and half years since he trained and functioned like an elite athlete and his body has surely been severely compromised. His mental state is fraught with problems, as was evidenced by his repeated breakdowns in court. Not to mention his age and a myriad other reasons why he can't compete again.
But what would it take for the Blade Runner to come back?
Others have done it before, haven't they? Boxers Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather and Prince Naseem have all returned to the ring after serving jail terms. Granted they didn't actually kill anyone but Tyson was convicted of rape and Mayweather of domestic abuse. Cyclist Lance Armstrong came back from retirement to race again although we do all know how that finally ended.
So yes, we're pushing it a little here, but let's consider the issue.
Ross Tucker is the Professor of Exercise Physiology at Free State University. The way he sees it, there are three independent things that have to happen for Pistorius to have a chance of returning to any meaningful level of competition.
These are 1. The Will 2. The Way and 3. The Welcome.
- The Will
This is arguably the most important as it determines whether Pistorius actually wants to return to the track at all. 'Time away is always difficult, regardless of reason,' explains Prof Tucker. 'But when it's weighed up against a murder trial, then retaining the desire to get back into training is all the more difficult. And for Pistorius, he must realise that re-entering competitive sport is going to attract all kinds of attention, most of it negative. It will not bring with it the same goodwill and uplifting sentiment as his previous career did, so he'd be inviting that back.'
Does Pistorius have the appetite for this level of attention, criticism and scrutiny? A major factor around this will be his emotional state. This was the subject of intense debate during the trial and it was mentioned that he was suffering from depression and he was having suicidal thoughts. If those were to persist, that could dramatically impact on his training. His coaches, family and legal team were always desperate to get him back on the track as they believed that it would help him to cope and be beneficial to him, but Tucker doesn't agree.
'I think for most people, beneath the elite level, exercise does help combat depression but an elite athlete is a different animal, and in my experience, the kind of sacrifice and commitment required is much more difficult when a person is not emotionally stable and very strong. The stress reliever becomes the greatest stressor. But everyone is different,' says the Prof.
- The Way
If Pistorius does actually have the will to return, there may not necessarily be a way. This will come down to the level of training he was able to sustain both during the trial and during his prison term. Shooting goals with Radovan Krejcir in a prison courtyard isn't quite going to cut it as a competitive sportsman. We also aren't privy to his parole conditions so we don't know whether he will be allowed to visit the track or the gym or even engage in any meaningful kind of training.
'This is the great unknown,' explains Tucker. 'It might be impossible to create the "unnatural" routine required for elite performance. It also takes time - years of consistency in training and diet - to build an elite athlete. How much of that was lost during the trial, the prison term and how much can this loss be retrieved within the parole restrictions? Age alone is inescapable, that much reconditioning is very tough.'
- The Welcome
Even if Pistorius wants to and can come back, does the athletic world actually want him? At the conclusion of his trial, the International Paralympic Committee clearly stated that he would not be allowed to compete competitively until the end of his five year sentence. That would take him to 2019 at best. South African sports umbrella body SASCOC has also indicated that it would take the lead on this from the international athletic authority so it is highly unlikely he would be included in any kind of national team before then.
The next issue is whether he will actually be welcomed back by the athletics community at all. In the past, he traded more on his brand and his marketing flair to get invites to events and it was often goodwill that saw him regularly appearing around the world. That would have been depleted now with many across the globe believing he got away with murder and that he should have spent a longer time in prison. His masses of sponsors have also abandoned him which means that he no longer brings with him the endorsements of brands like Nike or Oakley.
'On performance alone, he was always only a fringe athlete for those top-tier competitions, so even if he got to the same level, his bargaining chip is now gone,' argues Tucker. 'Will meeting organisers want to invite his presence and the publicity into their meetings is questionable. He used to offer huge upside, he now offers very little, with potential huge downside.' With athletics battling a PR disaster of its own amidst a massive doping scandal, it's highly unlikely they would want to court further controversy.
There is always the possibility that Pistorius could be invited as a spectacle, a kind of freak show element, performing at ceremonial events. Despite his very public shaming, Lance Armstrong still made an appearance at the Tour de France this year as part of a sidebar publicity event. There is also a sector of society that still hero worships Pistorius and has great sympathy for him and they could well go to the extreme of publicly following him on the circuit.
In addition to these three 'W's', there is also the crucial element of timing. Even if he was allowed to compete, he would have just nine months in which to get good enough to qualify for the next Olympics and Paralympics in Rio. Age is also not on his side. As runners go, he's probably past his prime and he already displayed that in London three years ago. He was dethroned by Brazilian Alan Oliveira and many would argue he had peaked. By 2019 he would be a long in the tooth has-been.
Betting money would be on Pistorius not ever making a comeback. But what are his alternatives? Competitive running is all he knows. He has indicated that he wants to get involved in community service, working with children and possibly doing inspirational speaking. He could mould himself on reformed thug Gayton Mckenzie and preach redemption and rehabilitation. But it is unlikely he could find a sustainable market for that with society highly critical of his resuming a public role. He could keep his head down, avoid attention, get a nice quiet job working for his uncle in the family business and disappear from the public glare.
But a competitor like Pistorius may just find the lure of the spotlight too great. He could be too hungry for the competition. There is always the remote possibility that he could be drawn back to sport like a moth to a flame, indefensible, in the hope of wanting to send a message to the world that has written him off, by reclaiming his former glory. Time will tell.
_Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for _ Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener