The harder they fall

The bigger they are…

Two years ago he was Bladerunner, the inspirational story of a double amputee who had conquered the Paralympic Games and was how competing on an even bigger stage. A man with no legs–running in the Olympics. He said all the right things in interviews. He ran with the support the support of his country, and proudly carried the nation’s flag at the closing ceremonies. He anchored the 4×400 relay and qualified for the semifinals in the 400 meter dash (all against athletes that don’t have to put on their legs each day). A silver medalist from the 2011 world championships, he was in the midst of a remarkable career. This type of story gets fast-tracked to the headlines and the highlight reels, one that will often inspire the world. We read about athletes who overcome personal obstacles en route to success, the “feel good” stories and the underdogs. A double amputee merely competing in track in field is a phenomenal personal and athletic achievement–yet this man’s determination took him much further.

Now Oscar Pistorius is mending the pieces of his life that changed so drastically since that summer in London. Following the 400 meter semifinals, Kirani James (the eventual 400 meter gold medalist) chose to trade bib numbers with Pistorius, a sign of mutual respect among competitors. That scene seems ages in the past, replaced by ones of Pistorius in a courtroom recalling details of a horrifically fatal shooting of his girlfriend. Last week Pistorius was found not guilty of murder and guilty of culpable homicide, awaiting sentencing. The legal ramifications will take much longer to sort out (much longer than a 400 meter sprint), let alone a possible return to competition. Pistorius’s legacy will be forever linked to a locked door and some alleged screams.

And we, the same audience who watched his carbon-fiber blades race around that London stadium, are left with the sobering result of an athlete’s fall from grace. We watch our favorite competitors pursue excellence on the field, and we expect the same perfection from them off the field. It may not be fair, but we hold them to higher standards anyway. Athletes are role models, we watch them on TV and read their stories on the Internet. With the speed of information, mistakes are widely publicized and excuses are rarely believed. Just this past week, the Pistorius case was decided in the wake of misconduct by Ray Rice, Chris Davis, and Adrian Peterson. When you sign a large contract or put on a jersey, you sign more than just your name. You sign on behalf of your team and your fans, your coaches and your mentors. You accept the responsibility that comes with fame or wealth (if you’re lucky to achieve either of those). As long as kids around the world are watching sports, athletes naturally become role models and are expected to act as such. So why do so many fail in doing so? Maybe our expectations are too high; maybe we don’t know what it’s like to have and entire life scrutinized every day. Maybe its hubris or arrogance, or a lack of mentorship, or a preponderance of stupidity. Maybe we don’t hear enough about the positive stories (maybe that’s the place to start).

Fortunes can change in an instant: a misspoken remark, a wrong-turn, an action without thinking. In a second, a legacy is changed, a reputation is ruined. Champion to villain. It’s impossible to remember Barry Bonds’ home run records without the pall of the steroid era. A terrible scandal overshadows the otherwise brilliant coach career of Joe Paterno. We see academic issues and drug use that derail promising careers: stories that overshadow the thousands of players that do act honorably on and off the field. Thus we miss out on the full potential of sports to uplift athletes from tough situations. Athletes who act as positive role models can inspire a new generation, if they are indeed brave enough to live up to that responsibility. Our society accepts mistakes as part of life and cheers for those who acknowledge their shortcomings can return stronger. But mistakes are not always forgotten. They don’t justify cheating; they don’t justify abuse; they don’t justify covering up a scandal; they don’t justify firing a loaded through through a bathroom door without first checking if your girlfriend is in fact not in the bed beside you. One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite sports figures, the late Coach John Wooden: “ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there.” Making it to the big leagues requires a full commitment to excellence, to not cut corners, simply put, to be the best you can be. Once you’re there, it’s easy to look for a shortcut or act above the rules. I like Coach Wooden’s message because it applies not only to sports, but to business, and politics, and life. Making it to the top is difficult, whether you’re a president, a CEO, or a Super Bowl champion. When you make it to the top, congratulations, you probably deserve it. But if you stumble, it’s a long way to fall.  AN

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