The case of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner who has been charged with the shooting murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, has shone a dispiriting light on everything from the horrendous rates of violence against women in South Africa to the media handling of Pistorius, a famous athlete, and Steenkamp, who was a model. But while this is a decidedly minor concern, I’ve found myself thinking about the gap between Pistorius’ legend and what appears to have been the reality of his domestic life alongside the decision by the executive board of the International Olympic Committee to recommend that wrestling be dropped from the games starting in 2020.
The official declaration that one of the foundational sports of the Olympic games doesn’t have enough interest from the public to justify its continued inclusion in the competition, and an accusation of murder against an athlete who transcended the loss of his legs to compete against the best runners without disabilities in the world, may not seem to have much in common. But collectively, they’re an illustration of the financial and commercial stake has in burnishing the reputation of someone like Pistorius.
Because the Olympics—and NBC, which owns the broadcast rights to the games in the United States—can’t trust that extremely large audiences follow many of the sports involved, and thus that they’ll develop rooting interests on the merits, they need something else to pull those viewers in, to help them decide which competitors they’ll back if there are multiple candidates on the American national team, and to help them identify which athletes they’ll root for if no Americans are available. Inspirational stories are the primary mechanism of doing this, and to a certain extent, the main product NBC is actually selling. It may be frustrating to some viewers that life stories and interviews with athletes take up so much broadcast time, and make it harder to broadcast competitions live. But without them, it’s hard to imagine that the ratings of the games would be so high, and thus so financially valuable.
The Olympics and its broadcast partners have a direct financial interest in Oscar Pistorius being an extraordinary young man who transcended the loss of his legs below the knee, rather than someone who had had the police visit his house on multiple occasions because of “domestic incidents.” They have an investment in the idea that competitive ice skaters are nice little girls, rather than women with ex-husbands who solicit assaults on their competitors—Olympic athletes have financial interests, rather than simply national honor, at stake, too. Sometimes those interests mean that the Olympics get behind a useful story, championing someone like Gabby Douglas, and as a result, highlighting the whiteness of that sport, and bringing in new audiences for it. And sometimes it means obscuring what it means to live in some place like South Africa, and the extent to which overcoming some of the limitations his disability placed on him doesn’t mean that Pistorius was somehow exempt from participating in or becoming a victim of the violence, particularly the violence against women, that plague South Africa.
The Olympics were initially supposed to bring the world’s countries together. But it’s one thing to get the nations to set their differences aside and observe a truce, and another to use uniformly cheerful stories about adversity overcome to paper over the differences in where athletes come from, and even their own varied humanity. That anyone’s surprised that an Olympic athlete could end up charged in a domestic violence murder is a testament to the success NBC does in creating a uniform product, and to how deeply and easily we buy into it, over and over again.