Category Archives: Oscar Pistorius

Reflections on the Case of Oscar Pistorius

As has been widely reported, Oscar Pistorius is accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in his home on February 14. Currently, he is out on bail awaiting trial. He asserts his innocence, claiming that it was tragic case of mistaking her for a home intruder. (The Guardian’s dedicated page for news regarding the case)

Pistorius’ fame reached a pinnacle during the 2012 London Olympics when he became the first Paralympic running in the Olympic Games. Like many Olympic athletes, Pistorius’ path to the Olympics was a challenging road filled with multiple obstacles. Unlike most Olympians, however, Pistorius faced legal challenges and public opinion battles regarding his right to compete as a double amputee against able-bodied athletes. This made Pistorius a story of inspiration, hope, perseverance, and justice. (My earlier blog on Oscar Pistorius) He inspired disabled and able-bodied athletes and spectators across the globe. This admiration and respect was concretized by Grenada’s Kirana James exchanging his bib numbers with Pistorius after the 400-meter semifinal. He seemed to be the most popular South African athlete, period.

Then came the news of the murder: a young woman dead at the hands of a national hero. Images, ideals, and idols shattered. Hope and goodwill turned to anger and outrage.

So what does this have to do with Sports Ethics or Philosophy of Sport? As tragic as it is, it doesn’t raise any special or novel issues for sport as such. Nevertheless, this case has led me to think about an issue that does somewhat relate to Sports Ethics. For several years, I have used Pistorius’ push to race in the Olympics as a part of my Sports Ethic course. We spend several classes examining the questions that arise in his case: issues of disabled athletes generally; should disabled athletes compete against able-bodied athletes; does running on the blades as Pistorius does, count as running; etc. It also connects nicely with the class’s discussion of doping and PEDs. Should arguments against PEDs apply to the technical aids used by a disabled athlete to compete? The case of Oscar Pistorius frames the whole discussion of these questions. I am hardly alone in this. Much of the literature that focuses on these questions is framed by Pistorius’ case.

After processing the shock of the news of Pistorius’ arrest and his girlfriend’s murder, I started to wonder: should I (or any teachers) continue to use Pistorius as the main case-study for my classes?

I am reluctant to do so. Historically, Pistorius racing at the Olympics is still an important and inspirational event. All the ethical and philosophical questions that it brings forward remain worthy of inquiry. But I am not comfortable using a murderer (assuming he is guilty) as the case to bring these issues up for discussion. Moreover, I am not sure my view would change if he is ultimately acquitted. Why?

  1. Part of what makes Pistorius’ case so powerful is Pistorius himself. We feel sympathy for him because he is a normal-seeming guy who just wants to compete. His story pulls at our sense of fairness: it is easy for us to imagine being him and in his situation. But if he is found guilty of murder, this doesn’t work anymore. Maybe this just requires a re-framing of the narrative, but it is hard to imagine that one can frame the story in a way that wouldn’t downplay the murder and do further injustice to the memory of Steenkamp.
  2. A practical concern is that trying to use Pistorius as a central figure here creates a huge distraction. Students will want to focus on the murder, not the issues.
  3. Even if he is acquitted, he is no longer the sympathetic figure he was. The practical concern would remain because students would likely be more familiar with him as someone charged with and associated with a murder. Moreover, even if acquitted of a murder charge, he still seems, based on released evidence and testimony, morally culpable for her death (more on this in the appendix below).

I do not expect nor demand that the figures discussed in class be moral saints or ideals. That is unrealistic, unnecessary, and contrary to the goals of education. However, Pistorius’ case raises a special problem because so much of the narrative of the disabled athlete triumphing in the quest of fairness is celebratory.

Innocent or guilty, I do not think Pistorius should be ignored in sports history. He was the first to do something significant in sport. He has helped and inspired countless athletes and others to overcome their own obstacles. (In this way, his situation is similar to another fallen sport hero: Lance Armstrong.) But now this narrative includes murder, and that forever changes it.

Whether I continue to use Pistorius or not in my class (I have not decided yet), he can no longer be an inspiration or story of hope and triumph. The loss of an inspirational figure to talk about in Sports Ethics does not even rise to the level of a tiny, micro-tragedy. A woman is dead. Her family and loved ones have suffered an incalculable loss. Obviously, that is rightfully where most of our focus and concern should be.

Appendix: What I think about the case itself
I admit I find Pistorius’ account, as reported, of Steenkamp’s killing unconvincing and even if true not exculpatory. On the other hand, the bail hearing revealed what looks like police negligence and incompetence in handling the investigation. Such mishandling might lead to, and if extensive demand, an acquittal. Nevertheless, it looks to me like he is still morally on the hook for her death.

This is what has been reported as Pistorius’ account: that he thought there was an intruder locked in the bathroom, and given both the crime rate in South Africa and past threats against Pistorius, he feared enough for his safety to fire his weapon four times through the closed door. (Graphic representation of Pistorius’ testimony).

The use of deadly force is justifiable in self-defense, but not without conditions. What these conditions would be and how they are justified is a complicated matter of social and legal philosophy. For that reason, I’ll assert, without argument, what I take to be at least two essential conditions for the justified use of force (deadly or not). (These are likely not equivalent to the South African legal requirements for the use of deadly force)

  1. There is the use of or imminent threat of use of force against one’s person or property (and by extension persons who in some way one is responsible for: children, loved ones).
  2. There are no reasonable or effective alternatives to defend one’s person or property (and extensions).

I think he fails to meet these conditions. Counterfactual, if he was right that the person in the bathroom was an intruder and not his girlfriend, this intruder would be initiating force against Pistorius by trespassing. This trespass, then, might meet the first condition. However, before using force, one has a responsibility to confirm (or try to confirm) one’s suspicion (at least as much as one can in a given set of circumstances). Nothing in Pistorius’ account so far suggests that he attempted to confirm that the person in the bathroom was indeed an intruder or a threat.

But even if he meets the first condition; he fails utterly on the second. At least based on the testimony so far reported, there seems to have been several alternatives Pistorius could have used to protect himself and his property instead of force. He could have removed himself from the perceived immediate danger from the intruder behind the door, called security and/or the police, and waited with his weapon in case the supposed intruder came out of the bathroom. Shooting blindly through a closed door hardly seems like the only (or more strongly, even a) reasonable and effective option for self-defense in this case.

This doesn’t establish that Pistorius is guilty of murdering Steenkamp. There are many legal hurdles and standards that need to be met to establish that. Moreover, I suppose evidence could come out that would show Pistorius was facing at least a perceived imminent threat with no reasonable or effective alternatives. Still, nothing like that seems forthcoming at this point even from Pistorius himself. My point is, guilty of premeditated murder or not, Pistorius is morally culpable for Steenkamp’s death.

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Filed under Oscar Pistorius, Sports Ethics, Sports Studies

The Fastest Man on No Legs

The 2012 Summer Olympics start July 27. Like most sports fans, I always get excited about the Olympics: the pageantry, the athleticism, and the glory of achievement. But this year, there is something else that will be amazing to see. The Fastest Man on No Legs will be racing in London.

Oscar PistoriusThis is the nickname of South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius had both his legs amputated as a baby because of a birth defect that left him with no fibula bones. Instead of legs like the rest of the Olympic field, Pistorius will be running on prosthetic devices called “Cheetahs.”

I am just fascinated by this story. It raises so many interesting issues!

There is the obvious ethical and legal question: should an athlete that requires a technical device to compete be allowed to compete against athletes that do not?

But it suggests several other philosophic issues as well:

  • Is Pistorius actually running? That is, does the movement that he engages in count as a kind of running or is it something else?
  • What is and ought to be our relationship to technology? Does it enhance our humanity or undermine it? Is Pistorius less human by needing technology to compete or is this a deeper expression of his humanity?
  • What is the nature of an advantage and when is it to be counted as being an unfair advantage?

These are not questions with easy or uncontroversial answers. They also bear on other ethical issues; for example, the issue of unfair advantage is relevant for the arguments regarding PEDs—and also for political and economic arguments more generally (how should we deal with unfair advantages in the market?).

A quick search on Google or an academic database will turn up many articles tackling aspects of these issues. I am not going to get into them here in this post. I just want to highlight the issues raised by the Pistorius case. But more than that, I want to call attention to the fact that Pistorius will be in London for the Olympics.

It is such a great story. Pistorius has overcome challenges and obstacles with which no other Olympiad as ever had to deal. There is the obvious challenge of not having legs and running on prosthetics. The challenge of using prosthetics just to walk is probably hard enough for most people, let alone running, let alone running at times that qualify for the Olympics!

But Oscar also had to fight a legal battle just to get the opportunity to compete in London. Initially banned from competing in the Beijing Olympics by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), Pistorius fought a legal battle to overturn the ruling. Oscar won the battle for Beijing, but was not able to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. On July 4, South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) announced that Pistorius would be included in its Olympic squad. He will run in 4×400 meter relay and the Men’s 400-meter.

Pistorius is to be admired and lauded for his ability and perseverance. He is a role model not just for disabled-athletes and individuals, but everyone. Through hard work, discipline, and training, he has made his dream come true. He has not let ignorance or prejudice stand in his way. He has not let his lack of legs keep him from pursuing his dreams or living the life he chooses.

For these reasons alone, I will be rooting hard to see Pistorius upon his blades standing proud on the medal podium.

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Filed under Achievement, Olympics, Oscar Pistorius