In making sense of former Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ story, particularly the February 2013 night when he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, it’s best to assume that you’ll never arrive at a satisfying set of answers. All of the evidence in the case in which he was convicted for culpable homicide—and later, murder—in 2014 was circumstantial. No one alive knows the why of what actually happened except Pistorius himself, but the new ESPN 30 for 30 four-part film, The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius, about the event as well as Pistorius’ career as a double-amputee runner, makes a long-winded attempt to decipher a narrative that diverges from the prosecution’s.
The film, directed by Dan Gordon, makes a thorough effort to understand Pistorius within a wider context that is skeptical of both media sensationalism and South Africa’s justice system. Unfortunately, Gordon falters in his attempt to weave in South Africa’s history of apartheid and currently high frequency of gender-based violence. The director manages to trace a racist and violent history without fully reckoning with the present-day realities of white supremacy in the country. In the process, it seems to make the claim that Pistorius’ own tragedy simply got caught up in an ugly national story that had little to do with him as an individual—a perspective that plays into white exceptionalism rather than challenging state violence and systemic oppression. As a result, the message that seems to ring out is that Pistorius’ life matters more as a successful athlete, as a white man of wealth, as a grieving boyfriend who had already lost his mother as a boy.
Of course, Pistorius’ life matters, as did Steenkamp’s, and as did all the women and child victims of terrible gender-based violence in South Africa, most of whom are Black. At one point, a spokesperson for the family says that South Africa’s history of apartheid and its current issues with gender-based violence became conflated with Pistorius’ trial; certain people were ready to believe that he was guilty because someone needed to be punished for the country’s sins. What this evaluation misses is that white South African authorities created the very system that ultimately took down Pistorius, even if it was women of color—including a Black woman judge—who ultimately oversaw the case. What Pistorius’ family seems to be objecting to is that their Oscar was subject to the same system that a Black South African would have been.
In the third episode of the series, Gordon explores the International Amateur Athletic Federation’s evaluation of whether Pistorius could compete against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics, in a way, comparing it to his murder trial. Pistorius and his team—as well as other notable Paralympic athletes—were insistent that prosthetics do not provide an advantage, and in fact they provide a disadvantage in the first 100 meters; but the IAAF hired two biomechanics experts who determined that there was a significant advantage in the final leg of the race. Pistorius hired American lawyers as well as a double-amputee biomechanist who successfully appealed the ruling. The episode made me think of another South African athlete, Caster Semenya, a Black woman runner who has been scrutinized by sports officials and even condemned by other competitors for her naturally higher levels of testosterone.
This month, Semenya lost her appeal against the testosterone limit established by international track and field governing body World Athletics. The athlete will only be able to return to the Olympics to defend her title in the 800-meter race if she takes testosterone suppressant medication, which will gradually slow her down over time; she refuses to take them. It’s a deeply complex issue that pertains to a very rare condition amongst women, DSD, and isn’t clear-cut even when you look at the science alone. Early in her career, Semenya was subjected to sex-testing without her fully informed consent, which determined much of her experience around the policing of her physiology in the sport. According to the new rules, without taking suppressants, she’ll only be eligible to compete in the 100m or 200m races—the 400m and 800m (her specialty) and 1500m are out.
In The Life and Trials, Pistorius’ successful appeal against the IAAF is conveyed as a triumph against the prevalence of ableism in both the athletic and scientific arena. Semenya’s story, however, while it does bring up the history of eugenics as used as an apartheid tool against Black bodies, did not have a triumphant outcome because our global biopolitics is still steeped in white supremacy. Blackness is already seen as aberrant, perhaps unfairly advantaged physiologically in sport (just look at the conversation around East African marathoners) while white bodies are seen as refined, perfected with an appropriate mix of hard work and natural talent. Black South Africans used to look up to Pistorius as a national advertisement for overcoming individual adversity as well as the country’s image as a broken and intolerant place. Yet The Life and Trials quickly moves on from the collective history of Pistorius’s home to instead focus on his exceptionalism. On the flip side, Semenya stands as representative of an imagined, historically-marked threat against women with typical levels of testosterone; her story is not reliably her own.
It’s important to look at who can be redeemed or defended as an individual independently of their social position and who cannot. And if Gordon had been able to tease out this complexity, it would’ve made for a much more compelling film, less hung up on the convincing nature of Pistorius’s sympathetic and grieving disposition in the wake of shooting Steenkamp dead, and more rigorously attentive to the psychology and systems that made the athlete so violently fearful of an intruder he never saw.