No Free Rides

I did not follow the Oscar Pistorius murder case when it first broke, and in reading about the whole messy business in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, the detail about the famed “blade runner” that struck me with the greatest force had nothing at all to do with the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

“Although Pistorius didn’t meet South Africa’s individual 400-meter qualifying standard to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics, he was approved, it seems, just because he was Oscar,” writes Mark Seal in his profile of the sprinter with two prosthetic legs.

Come again?

Yes, it’s true:  In the months preceding the 2012 London Games, Pistorius did not complete a key qualifying race in a good enough time (by his own country’s standards) to participate in the individual 400-meter event in London.  However, because he had qualified for the 4×400 relay and would be at the Olympics anyway—and, more to the point, because he was such a feel-good media sensation—South Africa asked the powers that be to allow Pistorius to run the individual race as well, and the request was granted.

For all my disinterest in most Olympic matters, this rather irritates me.

Yes, as a double amputee with seemingly superhuman physical abilities, Pistorius was undoubtedly a supremely inspirational figure and (prior to the murder charge) a peerless ambassador for his home country on the world stage.

Nonetheless, one would presume that if one does not meet the basic qualifications for inclusion in the Olympic Games, one does not get to participate in the Olympic Games.  Call me old-fashioned, but it seems only fair.

I am reminded (weirdly enough) of the SAT scandal from a few years back, in which an apparent computer glitch caused thousands of students’ SAT scores to be misreported—some students had scored better than they were originally told, while others scored worse.  In some cases, the discrepancy was several hundred points wide.

Once the College Board, which distributes the SAT, was made aware of its rather calamitous error, it rectified the problem thusly:  Those whose true scores were higher than originally reported were duly informed, while those who actually fared worse than they thought were allowed to keep the higher, false scores on their records.

This latter component of the College Board’s reparations has long struck me as supremely unjust.  Ostensibly, it was the College Board’s way of ensuring that no student would be punished for its own mistakes, as if to say, “Don’t worry; this one’s on us.”

The problem, however, is that many students were punished—namely, those whose SAT scores fell somewhere between the miscalculated group’s real and false ones, and who may well have been denied admission to their dream schools for that reason.

(For example:  Someone who scored 1700 found himself weighed against someone whose score was actually 1600 but, thanks to the computer glitch, was granted an 1800.  In the hyper-competitive world of college admissions, this can make all the difference in the world.)

If the SAT episode and the Pistorius episode have nothing else in common, what they share is this sense of passive injustice—of allowing certain people to sidestep the usual rules and regulations on their way to fame and fortune, while withholding the same privilege from others who might be equally, if not more, deserving.

This is what folks mean when they say, “The game is rigged.”  The rigging need not be overt or deliberate to warrant our attention or concern—indeed, it is precisely when injustices of this sort happen more or less by accident that we should most loudly and clearly register our disgust.

The danger of the proliferation of this peculiar practice—beyond the basic unfairness of it all—is the nasty sense of entitlement it engenders in its beneficiaries.

Once someone has been pulled through the E-Z Pass lane to success, enjoying the benefits of hard work without having worked hard, what is to stop him from thinking this won’t always be the case?

Murderer or not, Pistorius is most certainly guilty of an acutely unattractive sense of infallibility, reportedly saying upon being arrested, “I’ll survive.  I always win.”

And when someone witnesses such preferential treatment given to someone else—be it a fellow student or an Olympic athlete—what is he to make of this?  After a lifetime of telling our kids, “Hard work pays off,” are we prepared to permanently add the qualifier, “But dumb luck without hard work pays off even more”?

The harm falls on both sides, you see.  An uneven playing field is a comprehensive toxin on society, and we ought to try harder not to perpetuate it.

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