How South Africa Turned Oscar Pistorius’ Win into a Marketing Loss

[UPDATE: I was shocked to learn Oscar was charged with murdering his girlfriend on Feb 14, 2013. My thoughts are with both families as well as with Oscar's fans around the world] The Olympics and World Championships are considered the most prestigious of all sporting events as athletes compete not just for themselves but to honor their countries. As such, Olympic and World Championship competitions provide incredible marketing opportunities for countries as much as they do sporting opportunities for individual athletes.

When Jesse Owens dominated the sprints at the 1936 Munich Olympics in Germany, the sight of a black man winning so decisively created a significant setback for Hitler’s efforts to use the games to ‘market’ his message of Arian superiority. Indeed, the achievements of an individual athlete can often bring huge attention to their countries and represent a national marketing opportunity of immense proportions.

When an athlete achieves something extraordinary, as did Jesse Owens, one would expect their home country to embrace them and take full advantage of the marketing opportunity their athletic achievements present. But as South Africa demonstrated last week during the Track and Field World Championships in South Korea, such is not always the case.

Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprinter who specializes in the 400 meters. He is not ranked among the top ten in the world, nor has he set any world records. However, his appearance in the world championships was significant for another reason entirely—Pistorius is a double amputee (he runs on synthetic legs called ‘blades’) and the first Paralympian to compete against able bodied athletes in a world championship.

Merely qualifying for his event by reaching the Olympic A standard was an achievement in itself but Pistorius then did the unthinkable. He actually advanced all the way to the semi-finals, becoming a worldwide sensation in the process. Watching Pistorius run his heat against able bodied athletes and advance to the semis was a goose-bump inducing experience for millions around the world. Pistorius’ rugged good looks, his devotion to his sport, his ambition and shy modesty caused internet message boards and social media sites to flood with emotional messages of congratulations and support.

Pistorius did not make it to the final in the individual 400 meters race but he still had the 4x400 relay, where teams from each country compete for national as opposed to individual honor. In the qualifying heats of the relay, Oscar Pistorius led off the first leg for the South African team and not only broke their national team record in the process but ended up qualifying for the finals in third place!

Suddenly, there was a realistic chance Oscar Pistorius could find himself climbing the podium to receive a medal—an event that for millions around the world would symbolize something far greater than mere athletic achievement.

The site of a double amputee bending forward to have a world championship medal placed around his neck would be one of the most moving and inspirational moments in the history of sports. It would be something people with disabilities all over the world could look to as a moment of ultimate acceptance and equality, an image that would inspire for years to come.

And for South Africa, who is still emerging from a history of Apartheid and blatant inequality, Pistorius on the podium would depict a tableau of progress and fairness that would represent a marketing opportunity of historic significance.

The morning of the finals, Pistorius awoke with excitement and anticipation. But then, the second unthinkable event of his championships occurred—the South African team decided to replace Pistorius with another runner in the finals. If the team got a medal, Pistorius would receive one as well (because he ran in the heats) but he would not be on the podium. There would be no ‘moment’, no ceremony to inspire and to motivate, no public recognition that he had achieved the extraordinary.

Pistorius took the news hard. "Pretty Gutted" he tweeted to his fans before the race. His fans took the news even harder, especially because the decision seemed impossible to understand. Pistorius is the second fastest runner on the team, the time he and his team put up in the heats ended up being faster than the time the team ran without him in the final. In fact, the time Pistorius and his team ran in the heats would have won the gold medal had they replicated it in the finals. As Oto Bolden, a track star and commentator put it, "Someone on the South African Federation clearly had it in for Oscar Pistorius."

The South African team ended up winning the Silver medal. Pistorius did receive a medal for his efforts, but not publically, not in a way anyone saw and could cherish, not in a way that could inspire millions and bring true honor and glory to South Africa.

Cutting Pistorius turned what could have been a unique and unprecedented marketing opportunity for South Africa into a debacle that attracted worldwide frustration and criticism. People with disabilities deal with discrimination throughout their lives, they shouldn't have to deal with it within their own team and from their own country.

The Olympics are less than a year away and there is still time for South Africa to do damage control. An athlete with the character, determination, integrity and bravery of Oscar Pistorius comes along once a generation. He is the kind of asset any country should embrace fully and without reservation. Oscar Pistorius would have made Jesse Owens proud. Perhaps South Africa should once again turn to a black man to show them the way.

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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