Home / Clark Booth on Sports /

The ‘Blade Runner,’ Daytona, and Lance: What to make of this madness in the wide world of sport?

Years ago, “Wide World of Sport,” a classy ABC concoction, struck quite a note on behalf of the value and wonder of international sport every week. Even earlier, there was a motion picture narrated by the incomparable Spencer Tracy entitled “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

What we offer here are three striking examples of what we choose to call, “the mad, mad, madness” of the contemporary ‘wide world of sport’.” It’s all about how the worm has turned. You need to recognize that a half century has brought about changes on this precious turf that are not entirely admirable.

The curious case of Oscar Pistorius:  First off you should appreciate how important sports are in the extraordinary land of South Africa.

On an assignment there years ago I was amazed at the grip an international cricket tournament held on the entire country for two full weeks. Such was the intense interest that the government set up TV monitors at intersections in downtown Johannesburg that attracted mobs for every bloody beat of the interminable matches, day after day.
When the South African lads made the finals, the nation was transfixed. When they won, church bells rang all over the country. It was astounding and, I was told, quite routine.

It’s a nation of rugged characters who love to compete, so all the classical games are huge in South Africa; cricket, rugby, soccer (above all), boxing, sailing, hunting, curling, tennis, golf, racing (all kinds), and track & field. Now that other notable and historically agonizing tendencies in their culture have been curbed, South Africans live and die for their games; altogether a better thing, one supposes.

Anyway, out of this complex mindset emerges Pistorius, the much acclaimed handicapped sprinter known as “Blade Runner,” whose valor in running brilliantly on prosthetics so vividly displayed at the London Olympics charmed the entire world. To call Pistorius an icon – a much trivialized term these days – hardly begins to explain his stature in South Africa, let alone account for the shock and dismay raging over the charge that he brutally murdered his lovely girlfriend.

Here’s betting that the Afrikaner class – the fiercely proud former rulers of this land where Pistorius is a virtual saint – will never accept his guilt, even if it should be indisputably proven, and the state already has a helluva case.

Hereabouts the scandal understandably excites memories of the O.J. Simpson fiasco, for the similarity of details is certainly compelling. But this case is bigger with consequences potentially more damaging. We may also dig Sport in this country and make too much of its heroes, but no single sporting character in the USA has the mesmerizing hold that Pistorius exerts on the culture of South Africa.

The forthcoming trial will be a global circus, a tabloid dream come true. But beyond all the nonsense a serious question persists. How big should the games and their heroes be allowed to become in a shriveled world more and more desperate for both? It’s not a question that should be confined to South Africa.

A day at the races: Notably, those faintly insane exhaust-circuit melodramas staged a couple of times a year at the big oval in merry Daytona Beach at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. This time, zany NASCAR exceeded its wildest fantasies.

The scene at the end of the Nationwide Series race on the eve of the annual “500” was downright apocalyptic, with 13 cars crashing and careening along the base of the main grandstand. One car exploded. A pair of tires scaled into the high-priced seats like hundred-pound Frisbees. Flaming hot automotive fluids and debris showered an entire section of patrons. The engine of the car that exploded sailed over a 22-foot fence, miraculously landing on a catwalk instead of some poor sucker’s lap. Surreal was the aftermath, with paramedics crawling over the carnage as the injured were being hauled off on litters in the dead of night.

The greater miracle was that only 30 people sustained injuries requiring medical attention. Untold numbers reportedly got nicked and bruised but shook it off in the true spirit of noble and gritty hotrod junkies. Still, 14 folks had to be hospitalized, with two posted in critical condition. Many of the injuries are believed nasty coming as they did from flying shards of sharp metal. But NASCAR’s hold on the local culture – in which the local media are totally complicit – is awesome, and after two days such details are still just trickling out. No one in Volusia County, Florida, would dare dream of questioning almighty NASCAR.

In any other professional sport in this country, a comparable incident featuring such serious injury and spectacular turmoil would be a major contretemps. In any other stadium, the rapid return to business as usual without any questions or explanations or demands for greater pre-cautions, let alone accountability, would be totally unthinkable.
If the promoters of this rolling mayhem have any clue about how close they came to a major disaster, it was not evident. Within hours they were happily gearing up for the Big 500 and there was much chortling about the “excitement” of the previous evening. Or at least that’s what was reported by the local media.

It’s a free country, so they are, of course, free to make fools of themselves, as are the patrons who delight in this savage amusement. But why do we call this ... a “sport?”

Lance and his postal pals: Much to his amazement, Lance Armstrong – in the true spirit of the gifted con-man – never believed it would happen. But he is going down big-time, it’s now clear. And he’s taking with him on this bruising ride to abject humiliation his good buddy, the US Postal Service.

Bordering on bankruptcy, the service nonetheless found it useful to sponsor Armstrong’s lately disgraced cycling team for 12 years to the tune of at least 42 million bucks, and there are those who believe it may have been more. In return, the service got to place nice if rather tiny postal patches on the uniforms of Armstrong’s posse of zoned-out cyclists and there were mentions of their role in the media here and there, although no one made a big deal out of that until Lance’s elaborate ruse collapsed.

Now critics are sprouting all over the place, with the postal service being made to look downright foolish. In the New York Post, resident crank Phil Mushnick wonders if the reason they did it was to sell more US postage stamps in Brussels,  Barcelona, and Bordeaux.

Mind you, nobody would rationally argue that $42 million is much of a factor in the affairs of a multi-billion dollar enterprise that is several billions in the hole. But at a time when the postal service is seeking to curtail losses by closing post offices all over rural America while severing service everywhere on Saturdays, it doesn’t look very good. Essentially, the government was sponsoring an operation that was defrauding the government. It’s a blooming public relations nightmare.

Apart from the snide stuff, the fundamental question is valid. Why is an agency of the United States government promoting a professional sports enterprise, let alone one that makes snarling millionaires out of cads and cheats? It’s a question that makes aging, card-carrying New Dealers like myself squirm as we all prepare to dance the grand sequester.

Three examples of sports in our mad, mad, mad times! Actually, there are plenty more.