We can't resist a train wreck

The Oscar Pistorius case once again illustrates how the mighty fall ... and our eagerness to follow every twist and turn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 3:42am

Bruce Springsteen sang years ago about a darkness on the edge of town. But The Boss might have added there's a darkness on the edge of greatness as well. To that list of infamy add Oscar Pistorius. He burst onto the scene as one of the most admirable and unique Olympians ever, a post-apartheid golden boy who seemed to unify all sectors of his still fractured country.

Born without fibula in both legs, his lower limbs were amputated when he was 11 months old. Thanks to a series of prosthetics and an irrepressible spirit, Pistorius not only participated in sports, he excelled at them. With his carbon fibre blades he became a dominant force on the track, winning gold in the 100, 200 and 400 metres at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. Four years later, amid controversy over whether his fibre blades gave him an unfair advantage, Pistorius did the unthinkable and became the first amputee to ever participate in the Summer Olympics in the 400 and the 4X400m relay.

His results were basically irrelevant. To overcome what Pistorius did made him not only a global name, but also a lucrative global brand reaping millions from the likes of Nike, Oakley and French designer Thierry Mugler. "Part man, part god and unchained by the conventional codes of seduction, he is defined by his interior strength and his desire to conquer," claimed an ominous ad for Mugler's fragrance A*Men. "Oscar Pistorius possesses the masculine values which Thierry Mugler holds so dear."

A little more than a week ago, renowned gun aficionado Pistorius fatally shot his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp three times. He claims he mistook her for an intruder, prosecutors claim it was cold-blooded murder by a hero with a very dark side. He might well be innocent and he could just as easily be guilty. But the simple truth is that one of the most heartening and endearing athletes of this century is now, and most likely will be for the rest of his living days, a pariah of the highest order.

All that remains is for the players to start taking their places because, sadly, it's show time. The extraordinarily traumatised and aggrieved Steenkamp family will now be front row centre through no fault of their own. In Hollywood, A-list actors are sending urgent messages to their agents: Oscar equals Oscar, get me this role! Bookstores will shortly be overflowing with bound, lurid accounts and i-Pads alight with e-books. Hundreds, if not thousands, of media members will be making Pretoria their home for the next year or so. Lawyers and detectives are already becoming pop culture and social media sensations.

We have seen it all before. It's difficult not to compare Pistorius' situation with that of recent athletic stars whose actions have elevated them from the sports pages to tabloid notoriety and mainstream media. Tiger Woods' adulterous rampage a few years back put him squarely in the tabloid crosshairs. But the only thing Tiger killed was his marriage.

Football star O.J. Simpson and his murder trial circus 18 years ago is the obvious parallel. And while the characters in the O.J. drama are starting to eerily mirror Oscar's soap opera, there is one stark difference. O.J. was a sporting star first and foremost. He was a Heisman trophy winner and once the greatest running back in the game. The brutal murder of his wife and her friend took him out of the American sports pages and made him a global, albeit infamous, name.

Despite his sporting achievements, Pistorius has always been a human interest story that touched all facets of society. His tale is transcendent, there is no sporting exclusivity and because of that his trial has begun to explode in ways O.J.'s did not. He has been an icon for the disadvantaged, a national symbol universally loved and hell hath no fury like a scorned lover. Just ask Lance Armstrong.

I am not entirely sure what makes the great great. But I have a pretty good idea what makes them human and that's you and I. We eat this stuff up and the very same folks in the entertainment world who gleefully sell us tales of dreams are just as willing to sell us nightmares. In the story of Oscar and Reeva, they get to do both. You will watch and so will I, despite it being a cold and heartless reality that two young lives have been served up to feed our viewing greed. But never let it be said again that art imitates life. On the contrary, life imitates art.