The myth of the mod­ern sports hero

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Mike Wise

He is 74 now, al­most 50 sum­mers from when he stunned the Tokyo Olympics by rock­et­ing past the great­est 10,000me­ter run­ners in the world in the fi­nal 100 me­ters for the gold medal — a per­for­mance ranked by Run­ner’s World mag­a­zine as the sec­ond­great­est Olympic moment.

“You still look fast,” Pres­i­dent Obama quipped to a smil­ing Billy Mills when they met Fri­day morn­ing.

I went to the White House partly to see Mills re­ceive the na­tion’s sec­ond-high­est civil­ian honor — the Pres­i­den­tial Ci­ti­zens Medal. He was one of 18 hon­orees, in­clud­ing six Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School teach­ers who gave their lives to pro­tect their pupils, whose fam­ily mem­bers re­ceived their medals amid a room full of tears.

I went be­cause I know Billy and what he has done for Run­ning Strong for Amer­i­can In­dian Youth, his foun­da­tion that for the past 26 years has drilled wells, do­nated coats to chil­dren, plowed grow-your-own farms and ran food-bank pro­grams on his na­tive Pine Ridge In­dian Reser­va­tion in South Dakota as well as in other parts of In­dian coun­try.

But mostly I went to the White House on Fri­day to see au­then­tic hu­man majesty — be­cause there seems to be so lit­tle left in the ath­letes we now gullibly call our heroes.

If you would have told me the

dou­ble-am­putee track star they called the Blade Run­ner — who in­cred­i­bly ran on car­bon-fiber pros­thet­ics at the Lon­don Games this past sum­mer and beat able-bod­ied Olympians to the tape — would be charged in the shoot­ing death of his model girl­friend two days ago, I would have said you’re delu­sional.

But to­day they write head­lines about Os­car Pis­to­rius, days ago per­haps the most pop­u­lar South African since Nel­son Man­dela, that be­gin “Blade Gun­ner.”

Po­lice said there had been pre­vi­ous in­ci­dents at the home, al­legedly “of a domestic na­ture,” fly­ing in the face of re­ports that Pis­to­rius might have mis­taken the woman as an in­truder.

I stood inches from this man af­ter one of his Olympic qual­i­fy­ing heats, heard him al­most break down talk­ing about a let­ter his mother had writ­ten him and its in­spir­ing mes­sage: “A loser isn’t the per­son that gets in­volved and comes last, but it’s the per­son that doesn’t get in­volved in the first place.”

Af­ter try­ing to make the Olympic stan­dard for six years, he said, al­most over­come with emo­tion, “It’s very dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate the oc­ca­sion from the race.”

What did I miss? What did ev­ery­one miss? The more that comes out about his anger and his reck­less­ness — speed­boat wrecks, vi­o­lent threats, a gun ob­ses­sion — it’s al­most as if no one wanted to pull back those lay­ers be­cause they didn’t fit the “Fastest Man With No Legs” script.

No, we de­cided, Os­car was just ad­ven­tur­ous. He was an ac­tion fig­ure come to life, the great hope for the phys­i­cally chal­lenged ev­ery­where.

Why do we keep search­ing for real-life in­spi­ra­tion from our ath­letic heroes af­ter they do so much to dis­ap­point us as ci­ti­zens?

On and on the con­tra­dic­tions go, the re­al­ity that many cham­pi­ons of sport are hardly cham­pi­ons of life.

Be­fore the next de­fin­i­tive mag­a­zine or broad­cast piece is writ­ten or taped, can’t we just ad­mit we don’t really know any­body any­more. We think we do, but we don’t. And more than ever we’re duped by Web sites and han­dlers who feed false nar­ra­tives that care­fully cam­ou­flage flawed hu­mans who hap­pen to be great at what they do.

If we gen­uinely are go­ing to en­joy sports on any guilt­less level, isn’t there a need to per­ma­nently sep­a­rate the song from the singer, the per­former from the per­for­mance?

I thought about that as Billy Mills spoke Fri­day.

“In my own strug­gle, grow­ing up an or­phan, al­most com­mit­ting sui­cide when I felt bro­ken by the racism around me, then look­ing to­ward Na­tive Amer­i­can virtues and val­ues to over­come that,” he be­gan. “Then win­ning the gold medal, know­ing it was an in­cred­i­ble gift given to me and help­ing oth­ers af­ter­ward, this is just an af­fir­ma­tion of the jour­ney. I’m very hum­bled to re­ceive this award.”

Mills said he heard about Pis­to­rius’s ar­rest shortly be­fore he flew from his home in Sacra­mento to Washington. “Just shock, that’s all I felt,” he said. “I couldn’t be­lieve the story, it was so aw­ful.”

When I told him it was hard to be­lieve in hero­ism be­yond the court or field any­more, Mills nod­ded.

“The only down­fall of our beau­ti­ful free-en­ter­prise sys­tem is profit at all cost,” he said. “When you pur­sue profit at all costs, you’re hav­ing to let go of some beau­ti­ful strengths you still have within you. You lose sight of virtues and val­ues that made a Lance Arm­strong, virtues and val­ues that make all of us.

“We all make mis­takes — I’ve prob­a­bly made mul­ti­tudes of mis­takes I can’t prob­a­bly ever ask for­give­ness for. But it’s the virtues and val­ues that keep us go­ing for­ward.”

How to find our way back, then, to the time when phys­i­cal rigor was thought to build mo­ral char­ac­ter, when Olympians went home and be­came greater ci­ti­zens than they were ath­letic stars?

Billy Mills nod­ded again. “The great­est de­gree of free­dom many times calls for the great­est de­gree of dis­ci­pline,” he said.


Billy Mills is hon­ored Fri­day by Pres­i­dent Obama. “It’s the virtues and val­ues that keep us go­ing for­ward,” said the 1964 gold medal­ist.

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