The (alleged) murder last week of Reeva Steenkamp by the Olympic runner and double-amputee Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius confirmed for me (again) that world-class athletes aren’t necessarily world-class people. If anything, the evidence that great athletes can be flawed is nearly universal across all sports. Tiger Woods. Lance Armstrong. OJ Simpson. Kobe Bryant. Barry Bonds. Mike Tyson. These sports personalities don’t even need introductions, although I want it noted that the newly soft spoken Mike Tyson does seem to have turned his life around and I strangely dig that flame-like thing he had tattooed down the entire left side of his face.
Even pro bass fishing has gone downhill. Angler Paul Tormanen was convicted of fraud for catching fish prior to a tournament, tying them to a stump in the water, retrieving them during the contest and pretending—“Sue-ee, by dingy, hooked me some real monsters! I am so lucky
today!”—as if he had just caught them.
Faking your catch of the day isn’t the same as pumping rounds through the bathroom door and into your girlfriend, as Pistorius is accused of doing, but Tormanen still had to crawl head first down a muddy hole to get away from the bright lights.
Personally, I am no longer disappointed by professional athletes. My dad took me to bat day in the mid 1960s to watch the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a bright autumn day, and after the Cardinals had stomped whoever was foolish enough to take them on, I left with a junior-league slugger autographed by Orlando Cepeda, the first Puerto Rican to play in a major league all-star game and whose father died of malaria. Orlando, unfortunately, loved weed and later went to prison for smuggling five pounds of it into the PR. Yet he still made it to the Hall of Fame and I still have that bat.
After that, sports celebrities continued falling from the sky like shooting stars, and by the time OJ made his infamous Bronco getaway, I realized that there was something out of whack with the way we idolize them—and that we’ve learned not much since the day we gave up worshipping golden bulls.
The problem is, we have been duped into thinking we really know these professional athletes. TV and the Internet and other media make them accessible to the point that they have become virtual family. But, like Uncle Fester on his best behavior at Thanksgiving dinner, we really are getting a carefully crafted message and our hero could likely be a pervert/rapist/murderer/doper with fish tied to a stump. The mere act of endorsing a product is for some of them, at best a distortion of the truth.
By now, you are probably wondering what all this has to do with climbing. Good point, and that’s why when I opened my little rant I carefully used a few qualifiers such as “nearly” and “aren’t necessarily.” I did this to keep the door cracked for an exception.
Maybe the money and the fame are still too small, or maybe a sport that can kill you keeps you honest—or maybe it is simply because in our climbing world the novice can mingle freely with the likes of Sharma or Graham or DiGiulian—but I’ve yet to meet a top-caliber climber who wasn’t genuine. It’s almost maddening, actually, and at times I pine for the days when The Bird scandalously carved “Cut Free and Die” into a shard of human skull he had collected from one of his rescue outings.
As an example of just how squeaky clean our sport has become, a few years ago I was on the road with The Prince of Climbing. At dinner one evening the Prince held his wrist aloft to reveal one of those magnetic bracelets, the type that is supposed to cure/ward off arthritis, clean your blood and set your chi right.
“Do you think these things work?” he asked. “The company wants to pay me money to say it works, but I don’t know if it really does.”
“My father-in-law sleeps on a bed of magnets and is as strong as a gorilla, but I’m skeptical,” I said, then leaned in close and whispered. “Just take
the money. Tie the fish to the stump. No one will ever know.”
The Prince studied my comment. It was almost as if he had no clue what I was talking about. I figured he was dwelling on how later, when he’s older and the endorsements have dried up he will have wished he had taken every dime.
“Nah,” he said. “I'm not sure. I think I'll hold off.”
Now that surprised me.