Oscar Pistorius a human tragedy of biblical proportion

Oscar Pistorius represents a once in several generation athlete to athletes with disabilities. At the 2012 Summer Olympics on August 4, 2012, Pistorius became the first amputee runner to compete at an Olympic Games. Athletes with disabilities believed, dreamed and hoped they would be able to compete with able bodied athletes in international competitions for many years. Oscar Pistorius represented those hopes, those dreams. The dream became reality at the London Games, the dream turned into a nightmare Friday, when Pistorius was charged in a South African court with the murder of his South African model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

“He crossed a huge bridge by making it clear that people with disabilities could perform not just in classes of their own but in normal, world-class settings,” said Timothy Shriver, CEO of the Special Olympics.

“What we have to ask ourselves about big-time sports more broadly is how we prepare great athletes for the responsibilities of leadership,” Shriver said. “And I don’t think we have good answers for that.”

On July 4, 2012, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) announced that Pistorius had been included in the Olympic team for the 400 metres and the 4 × 400 metres relay races for the London Games. Pistorius’ dream which began when he competed at the 2004 Paralympic Games became reality. Pistorius first competed on the international stage at the 2004 Paralympic Games. Immediately Oscar sensed a bigger picture, a greater purpose.

“If something like that happens to you and you lose both legs, some people would give up,” Bryshon Nellum, a quarter-miler from the United States, said after Pistorius made his Olympic debut. “For him to continue to run, it’s unbelievable. It’s amazing.”

In 2005, Pistorius finished sixth in the able-bodied South African Championships over 400 metres with a world-record time of 47.34 seconds (in his disabled athlete class), and at the Paralympic World Cup in the same year he won gold in the 100 metres and 200 metres, beating his previous 200-metre world record.

On March 26, 2007, the IAAF (governing body for athletics) altered its competition rules banning the use of "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device".

Pistorius appealed the ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and appeared before the tribunal at the end of April 2008. After a two-day hearing, on May 16, 2008 the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld Pistorius's appeal and the IAAF council decision was revoked with immediate effect. Pistorius was eligible to compete in the 2008 Beijing Games but failed to qualify.

Pistorius was chosen to carry the South African flag for the closing ceremony at the London Olympic Games and the South African flag at the opening ceremonies of the London Paralympic Games – a global hero, one of sport’s most iconic figures. Oscar Pistorius proved that athletes with disabilities could compete on a level playing field with able bodied athletes.

Nike, who also at one time had working relationships with National Football League quarterback Michael Vick and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong currently have a contractual agreement with Pistorius. A Nike advertisement featuring Oscar Pistorius sprinting out of the blocks bearing the tagline "I am the bullet in the chamber," was quickly pulled from the South African sprinter's website following his arrest Thursday. Steenkamp was shot four times in her head.

"Nike extends its deepest sympathy and condolences to all families concerned following this tragic incident," said the Swoosh in a statement. "As it is a police matter, Nike will not comment further at this time."

Oakley (who also had an agreement with Lance Armstrong) and BP Global both said they were "shocked" by the news, but both refused to add anything else, citing the murder investigation.

“It speaks to how powerful a company like Nike, when they invest money behind an athlete, can make him or her appear iconic to the extent that they’re Teflon coated,” Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, told Bloomberg media.

Sports marketer Brian Cooper says the Pistorius arrest is every marketer’s nightmare.

“You try to have athletes matching the values of your product,” the president and CEO of S&E Marketing told the Globe and Mail. “That’s how brand matching works. Then all of a sudden Uncle Billy comes out of the woods and you’re in trouble.

“Pistorius was a great human-interest story of a man overcoming the odds to compete as able bodied. But you have to do due diligence. We went through this with our client Scotiabank when they decided to use Jarome Iginla as a spokesman. We spoke to everyone from his coaches to the stick boy to confirm that his values matched those of the sponsor. He does, and it’s been a great campaign.”

Morals clauses have become standard in athlete endorsement contacts since the late 1980’s (Ben Johnson and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games). The morals clause is a significant element of most, if not all, endorsement agreements. Brand owners rely on the clause for assurance that an athlete’s valuable image does not become tarnished – and for relief in the event that it does. With the power to restrain or influence an athlete’s behaviour, and with potentially severe repercussions, the morals clause can be a contentious item to negotiate.

Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist from Eugene, Ore., who works Olympic athletes and has spoken with Pistorius, shared these thoughts with The New York Times.

“What I got was that he liked to push the edge, like all great athletes, but I didn’t get the feeling that he was an outrageous guy, out of control, taking unnecessary risks,” Ungerleider said. “He never came across as arrogant.”

“Sometimes,” Ungerleider continued, “you think you kind of know where people are, then all of a sudden that perception goes. I’m just shocked and sad.

"In a sense, this is the biggest lesson to learn: that there really aren't heroes," Jason Richardson, a hurdler who won a silver medal in London told the Wall Street Journal. "We're too quick to elevate people into these hero roles and they're not allowed to be human."

The last few months have been terrible for athletes who are cherished role models and the image of athletes. While Oscar Pistorius has been charged and not convicted of murder, he is the only suspect South African authorities are looking at. Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is all but complete. Michael Vick and Tiger Woods two other athletes who Nike has worked with (Nike still endorses Tiger Woods), have hurt experienced serious issues that have damaged their image.

Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods along with Michael Vick have shattered the image and marketability of athletes. The images athletes today have are far from pristine. Part tragic heroes, more a reflection of the times we live in. Another sad series of examples of the evolution of sports and the $750 billion the industry annually generates globally.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom