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Our Disability: Sport as Religion

20 February 2013, 13:01

Mark (22) was born with a rare muscular condition that causes his muscles to deteriorate over time. Today, he has no real control over his arms and legs. But, he is still able to use his mouth to write and speak:

“They said I’d be dead by age 20, but I’m still here. I know what it’s like to be bullied for being different. Even after everything, the person who got me this far is Oscar Pistorius. They used to call him ‘lucky packet’ at Pretoria Boys’ High School, because they claimed he got his legs in a lucky packet. It was hard… On Twitter, he spoke of Spud being his favourite book. Being a boarder was never easy.”

Mark has Oscar’s pictures all over his bedroom walls. These are not photographs. He painted them using his mouth: “Oscar taught me so much about living with disability. I push on. I strive to make the most out of life.”

When news hit that Oscar had been accused of murder, Mark refused to believe it:
“The media feed us so much… It’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction. If innocent, he’ll live with the guilt of killing his beloved for the rest of his life. That, itself, is prison. If it was purposeful, he would be disappointing millions of fans. The guy is a strong Christian, as proven by his Bible quotes and the Corinthians tattoo on his back.”

The tattoo reads, from 1 Corinthians 9 v 26-27:

“26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

One thing is for certain: this whole saga has demasked the hypocrites from the faithful. Those once loyal to Oscar are breaking down, not sure what to believe any more. Jokes are being passed on as a way to deal with the shock. South Africa, much like the rest of the world, has created sport into a type of religion. Sport stars are on the cover of magazines, billboards, TV adverts and have thousands of fans on Facebook. Their autobiographies line up bookshops’ window-sills. Little children wait for them to visit their schools.

Mark explains this phenomenon quite well:
For many South Africans, we escape in our sport. Some see it as a refuge, others as a place of worship. Much like a church, mosque or synagogue. However, our fatal flaw is not realising we are fatally flawed. We idolise these guys too much. I’m guilty of that. Just look at my room.”

Mark continues after drinking two glasses of water: “I’ve heard from close friends, Oscar used to get angry when younger guys at school looked at his legs, even if they weren’t doing it on purpose. I get stared at every day. It gets to you. All you want is to be seen as human.”

Those words haunt me: “He wanted to be seen as human.”
Mark has tears in his eyes: “I’ve heard the craziest things lately, people calling him a cyborg with a gun attached to his hands. These are the same people who yesterday saw this sport's star as their invincible hero.”

The same can be said for all our other ‘decrowned sporting gods:’
Hansie Cronjé was worshipped as the best cricket captain we had ever seen. He was convicted of match fixing a few years later. Joost van der Westhuizen was our blue-eyed golden boy on the rugby field. His sex and drugs video became a horrible thing to digest. Herschelle Gibbs was our incredible cricket batsman. He was soon labelled a wife-beater with a short temper. The list goes on.

Oscar Pistorius once said: I have a strong sense that I have to educate people about disability. The truth is, he is educating us now more than ever about our disability to think for ourselves. “He is a cold-hearted killer” one day and “He’s a sufferer of unfortunate circumstances” the next. 

Mark hands me a colourful painting of Oscar at the London Olympics: “Maybe this whole saga has taught me one thing… Even the strongest people live in fear. Fear of losing a race. Fear of death-threats. Fear of being robbed. Fear of losing the one you love.”

Marks hands over the smallest sketch now. It’s a picture of Oscar holding one of his first trophies:
“No matter how much money you have, it does not buy you peace of mind. I just hope we see our own disabilities throughout this gruesome chapter. We all judge. We all speculate. We all, in that way, fall from grace. A trophy for some is a burden of pressure for others.”

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