The Disneyland of elite South African sport
Many familiar with South African vernacular english have heard the abrupt conversational rejoinder: “Is it?”
This curiously biting turn of phrase – with its ring of challenge to unfamiliar ears – typifies a distrust of hyperbole in a nation where even ordinary life is ‘writ larger’ than almost anywhere else on earth.
Leaving alone this week’s initial outrage of a sports star being charged with shooting his girlfriend to death, the alternative notion of a man emptying several rounds through a locked toilet door at an unidentified victim is problematic enough to the average person.
Yet a brief overview of recent South African sporting history shows a celebrity culture troubled to the point of making the Lance Armstrong saga seem mere wantonness.
As well as Oscar Pistorius, cricketer Hansie Cronje, runner Caster Semenya and swimmer Natalie De Toit are just three recent examples of the Rainbow Nation’s stormy engagement with modern sport and its potential for fiction-challenging pathos.
Cronje was one of his country’s most illustrious sportsmen when found guilty of match fixing in 2000.
That he also died within two years of his life ban in a light plane crash seemed consistent in a nation seemingly overseen by some stern Greek God of sporting destinies.
Rumours of revenge by underworld figures for Cronje’s testimony have never quite subsided.
Semenya was – and still is – one of the world’s best female 800m runners.
But 2009 allegations that a biological gender ambiguity gave her an unfair advantage caused her temporary banning.
Although subsequent testing was carried out which vindicated her status, results have never been explicit.
Her plight brought howls of protest from human rights and feminist groups anxious to protect her dignity and she was reinstated in 2010.
While she won a silver medal in the London 2012 Olympics 800m, critics have accused her of ‘backing off’ near the finish line to avoid further controversy that might have accompanied a gold medal.
That such a rare and unexplored issue in women’s sport occurred in South Africa reinforces the impression of that nation’s vexed sporting destiny.
Du Toit, in probably the ‘happiest’ outcome of the four, is an amputee (her lower left leg was lost after a motor cycle accident) who not only represented successfully in disabled sport, but participated in the able bodied Beijing Olympics in the 10 kilometres open water race.
Unlike her land based counterpart, Pistorius, Du Toit swam without a prosthetic and finished 16th.
Perhaps her (so far) unblemished and heroic efforts can point to a less tumultuous future for her country’s sporting outcomes.
Brad Cooper is a former Olympic swimming champion who won gold in 1972 in the 400m freestyle.