Do we mythologize athletes too much?

oscar-p-584.jpgPhotographers take photos of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius as he stands in the dock during his bail hearing at the magistrates court in Pretoria, South Africa on Feb. 22. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

First aired on Day 6 (22/02/13)

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When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger, author of the critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights, heard that South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius had been charged with the murder of his girlfriend, his first reaction was shock.

Pistorius captured the world's attention when he competed in able-bodied categories at the London games despite being a double leg amputee. "He was considered such a hero, what he had been through physically," Bissinger told Day 6. "I thought if there was anyone out there who would always be a hero, I thought it was Oscar Pistorius."

But the more Bissinger thought about the disturbing story, the more he came to a troublesome conclusion. He realized that many people idealize athletes far too much, and that the media is mostly to blame for this. The adulation of athletes is built up through hyperbolic news features that connect success in sports with the powerful, universal narrative of achieving dreams. Bissinger says this media mythologizing of sports has been happening for decades, noting that renowned sportswriter Grantland Rice referred to the backfield of the 1924 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

Bissinger says we come to see our athletes as larger than life, which is why when their very human failures become public, the sins can seem so much greater, so much more surprising.

"You go through the list -- and it's much bigger than this -- but: Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, an American football player named Jovan Belcher who killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide ... I mean the list goes on and on and on," he said. "I don't think they're meant to be role models we put these guys on a pedestal that ultimately can become very, very dangerous and I think that happened in the case of Oscar Pistorius."

To expect athletes to be model citizens is mistake, Bissinger says, because while "we're all narcissistic to one degree or another, athletes are the biggest narcissists in the world and would do anything to get an extra edge."

Performance enhancing drugs are a huge issue in sports, but it goes beyond steroids. The extra edge could come from the use of gray-area technology, or controversial training methods, or publicity drummed up the media. And, as Bissinger sees it, there's too much fame and too much money on the line to not seek out every advantage as an athlete on the verge.

"The difference between almost making it and making it is a slice of cheese," Bissinger said.