“God is the most important person in the world to me. If I’m on the right patch spiritually, it helps with everything else. Christ makes all the difference. He aids me in my struggles and makes my glories that much better.” – Oscar Pistorius
It’s Sunday, 2 September, at the Olympic Stadium, and the final of the men’s Paralympic T44 200m. South African Oscar Pistorius is called to the starting blocks, crouches down, and, as he does before every race, says a prayer.
21.52 seconds later Pistorius is fuming, screaming “we’re not running a fair race” into the TV cameras that are desperate to get the South African’s reaction to a shock defeat, beaten by Brazil’s Alan Oliveira, who, despite being metres back around the bend, has eaten up the ground on Pistorius down the home straight to win by 0.07 seconds.
Oscar Pistorius is utterly furious. No gracious congratulations for the winner, no “the best man won on the day”, just indignation at what he perceives (due to the length of Oliveira’s running blades) to be an unjust defeat. But this is the same man who, just seconds before, was praying to the God who, in his own words, aids him in his struggles.
Yesterday Pistorius released a statement, apologising. “I would never want to detract from another athlete’s moment of triumph and I want to apologise for the timing of my comments after yesterday’s race.”
Ten years ago I played in a football match in my local church league. It was the first game of the season, on an unseasonably warm day in south Wales at the end of September, and we were full of the excitement that only that first match can bring.
An hour into the game, a friend of mine was fouled badly, got up, turned to the guy who fouled him, said “what the hell was that?” and the guy punched him in the face. The guy who threw the punch was a policeman and a church deacon. A couple of days later he rang my mate, took him out for a coffee and apologised profusely for his conduct. Heat of the moment, he said. Didn’t know what came over him.
I could give you another hundred of these stories. What is it about sport that makes good, principled people completely lose themselves when they walk across a painted white line onto a sports field? The desire to win can outweigh any Christian faith, outweigh any usual personality traits and lead to actions that people would never consider appropriate outside of a sports field. But what can we, as amateur sportsmen and women, do about it?
About five minutes into my first senior football match, as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, I nearly scored a goal after getting in front of a defender by pulling him back when I knew the ref wouldn’t be able to see. As we jogged back into position to await the resulting goal-kick, the defender – more than twice my age – pointed at me and said: “Son, you’ve been watching too much TV football.”
It was an entertaining way of telling me to play fairly, of reminding me that it was a local league match between two teams of amateurs who gave up their spare time because they loved playing football, and there was really no point in cheating to win.
It’s a lesson I’ve tried to follow over the hundreds of matches I’ve played since. And yep, I get it wrong fairly regularly – at some point I’ll tell the story of a proper tantrum that I had at a referee which would’ve embarrassed a three-year-old – but when I feel wronged by a decision I try to remember that old right-back in the South Wales Church League and think: “Calm down, Jones – this isn’t TV football.”