The Hard Lessons of Oscar Pistorius

Society often insists that its top achievers also be great human beings. It's often not the case. And the pressure put on them may make things worse.

oscar pistorius reuters 900 running wallace.jpg
Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad

The news from the South African capital of Pretoria last Thursday came as a disappointment of the highest, most crushing nature. We'd had athletes plummet to notoriety dramatically and recently, but not like this. The fall of cancer survivor-turned-Tour-de-France-champion Lance Armstrong, for example, at least offered the mercy of a gradual unveiling. By the time Armstrong himself came clean, it was almost like physically losing a father after years of Alzheimer's deterioration had already taken away the important parts.

But the news that Oscar Pistorius, the South African who became the first double amputee to compete against able-bodied runners at the London Olympics last summer, had been arrested for the murder of his supermodel girlfriend on Valentine's Day, was more brutally shocking, on several levels.

First, and most obviously, the crime of doping pales dramatically compared with murder. Second, there were no highly publicized rumors of Mike-Tyson-type bad behavior leading up to the incident, so we (the general fan/reader public) had no warning. Our image adjustment was abrupt and severe. And third, the news shattered a fantasy story—or stories—that we really, really wanted to believe.

The obvious fantasy personified by Pistorius is of the underdog overcoming overwhelming adversity to achieve triumph. A man without legs reaches the semi-finals of the 400-meter track event at the Olympics? "If that can happen," one can just hear parents around the world telling their children, "then you can do anything." Even if you're not perfect. Or you have some physical defect. Or you're sick.

It's a powerful and uplifting message that we want to believe, in all its simplicity and potential for a happy ending. Fade to credits, everyone leaves inspired.

Unfortunately, the equation of achievement is far more complex.

In a revealing profile of Michael Jordan at 50, published this week on, Wright Thompson writes that the young Jordan believed his father preferred his older brother, and spent a lifetime driven to achieve as a way of proving his worth. "This appetite to prove—to attack and to dominate and to win," Thompson notes, "... has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy."

Even Jordan acknowledged that his self-esteem has always been "tied directly to the game." Hence the drive, the rage, the relentless pursuit of victory that led to astounding feats of skill and six championship rings in his dresser drawer. But Jordan also talked to Thompson about what the process of that pursuit does to a person. "You ask for these special powers to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can't. ... I drove myself so much that I'm still living with some of those drives. ... I don't know how to get rid of it."

It's an aspect to achievement that we often shove aside in our focus on the shining moments of record-breaking triumph. And that goes for more than just sporting feats and icons. A friend of mine, whose job gave him access to many of the top CEOs in America, told a similar tale about their motivations and demons. I'd kidded him, back in my single days, to keep me in mind if he knew an interesting CEO who was single and age-appropriate.

"I do," he answered. "But the truth is, I wouldn't wish any of them on you."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they're generally not easy on their wives or families," he answered. He went on to explain that he'd developed a theory about top-achieving CEOs. "Almost to a person, they've been denied something that really mattered to them, early in their lives. So they spend the rest of their lives making up for it. Achieving. And not only does that make them pretty focused on themselves, it also means that no achievement is ever enough. They're driven."

Maybe we shouldn't be so shocked. But we are. Because we don't want to look at the complexity or costs of achievement.

That, mind you, is before you throw in the ego that develops with success or the impact that sudden wealth, power, and fame can have on people who are ill-prepared to cope with it. You spend years laser-focused on yourself and your own achievement. And then, if you're successful, suddenly everyone else is focused on you, as well. As Thompson noted, "[Jordan] is used to being the most important person in every room he enters and, going a step further, in the lives of everyone he meets." Those in Jordan's life, Thompson says, are well versed in not only his achievements, but also "his ego, his moods, and his anger."

Top-level achievement requires talent, to be sure. But it also requires tremendous focus and great sacrifice. It makes sense that many of the people willing to devote that kind of effort and make those sacrifices have some driving emotional or psychological need that makes the trade-offs worthwhile. For everything in life is most assuredly a trade-off. To be a Michael Jordan or a gold-medal Olympic athlete requires such single-minded focus that it also necessarily requires trading off a whole lot of balance in life and development—a weakness that can then be amplified with the rush of fame, money, and attention that success brings. Perhaps the surprising thing is that there are actually exceptions to the rule; top athletes, celebrities and CEOs who do manage to be balanced individuals, with balanced lives and an ability to focus on others instead of themselves.

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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