Aarti J Narsee
WE put our faith and hope in them, we place them on a high pedestal and we often believe they can do no wrong; but when they do, our hurt makes us judge them far more harshly than others.
From Hansie Cronje to Joost van der Westhuizen, and now paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius, some of South Africa’s sports stars have fallen hard.
Today Pistorius, 27, goes on trial for the murder of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
On Valentine’s Day last year, Pistorius shot his lover through a toilet door in his Pretoria home. The state claims it was murder, while he says he believed there was an intruder in his home and that he was under threat.
Pistorius, born without fibula bones in his legs and deformities to his feet, had to overcome more obstacles than other athletes, yet he achieved international success.
Following the events on February 14 last year, many of his fans and admirers have been torn by mixed emotions about the murder trial of a national, and in many instances personal, hero.
Pistorius is the latest casualty among a number of sports heroes both locally and internationally who have been embroiled in scandals ranging from cheating, drug use and match fixing to murder.
Psychologists said it was a common phenomenon for athletes to be viewed as heroes and there was a tendency for people to latch on to their idol’s success.
Johannesburg psychologist Dr Leon van Niekerk said people lived vicariously through sports stars because they had overcome difficulties and were successful, which gave people a sense of hope.
“We feel we have contributed to their success. We make it personal, become supporters and idolise these people,” Van Niekerk said.
Cape Town psychologist Dr Despina Learmonth said: “Heroes are expected to be superhuman; almost perfect. When they show their imperfections, they can be criticised harshly.” Learmonth said the sports heroes people admired in adulthood replaced those they usually idolised in fairytales as children.
She also highlighted the role of sport in South Africa as a national unifier, transcending social class barriers and bringing people together, which heightened their importance.
“These individuals have put South Africa on the map and given the country a good name through their amazing achievements. But when they fall, they fall much harder because they were placed on a pedestal,” she said.
Inevitably, fans and fellow South Africans experience a range of emotions when one of their heroes has failed to meet their high expectations.
Dr Demitri Constantinou, director of the Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at Wits University, said because people idolised and respected these athletes, their disappointment led to internal conflict.
A failed athlete could lead to a roller-coaster of emotions, from denial to disappointment, anger, then sadness and rejection, Van Niekerk said.
Constantinou said: “What we need to appreciate is that athletes are human beings like anyone else. What we see is the public persona based on the performance.”