Every four years, in summer, the runner enters the stadium carrying
the eternal flame, and with his torch he ignites the pagan dream of
immortality. The crowd cheers.
Am I alone in feeling ambivalent toward the spectacle we call the
Olympics? On the one hand, as much as any one, I am thrilled by the
athletes, their bodies so poised and their prowess. On the other hand,
I withhold myself from this--the most popular pagan celebration in the
Hitler, most notoriously in our times, understood the advertisement of
a parade of perfectly formed athletes. Simone Weil, the French Jewish
philosopher, admitted that the pageantry of Hitler youth was wonderful
to her--their banners and their music. She had to remind herself that
the parade meant to trample her.
Here they come now, from every nation, Olympic runners and wrestlers
and jumpers. They parade smiling and waving at us. How should we
We cheer lustily as he flies through the air; cheer to see her run
against time. The Hellenic ideal made flesh. The Hellenistic idea was
the perfectability of flesh.
In Europe and America--those countries we call "the West"--two
competing influences have always been at play. Civic virtue tends
toward Hellenism--the cult of the individual to become and to say and
to be....A contrary religious influence, call it Hebraic--characteristic of
Jew and Christian and Muslim--describes life bounded by obedience;
alone I can do nothing.
The 19th century philosopher and poet Mathew Arnold in "Culture and
Anarchy" distinguishes Hellenism--as spontaneity of
consciousness--from Hebraism, a strictness of conscience. These two
influences intersect in America.
In the Hellenistic ideal the forum, the gymnasium and the university
are in harmony. In America, there is disharmony.
The architecture of our intellectual life is Greek or Greco-Roman.
Fraternity row has long chosen to call itself Greek, harkening to Athens.
The architecture of official Washington is Greek because the
documents of our country are shaped by Hellenism.
But in America the common religious piety is tribal. Which is why there
is a constant hunger in America for public prayer--at the football game,
at the high school graduation. And why the Supreme Court justices in
their Greek temple keep telling us that such prayer is impossible in
America--the Constitution protects the individual from the tyranny of
Hard to imagine the freedom of worship in America for Buddhist and
Scientologist and Sufi, were it not for our Hellenistic adherence to the
But it is impossible to imagine in ancient Greece an event like "the
Special Olympics"--cripples and the disabled running enabled. The
danger of Hellenism is that it leads to a cult of the hero, who
vanquishes all lesser beings.
Recently, the Olympic altar has begun to crack. Gold medals have had
to be taken away from athletes who could not pass drug tests. Then
Tanya Harding's ex-husband and a band of goons assaulted a
competing athlete. Then, several members of the International
Olympic Committee resigned after revelations of five-star extortion of
Historians tell us that the ancient Greeks attached no glory to losing.
So, also, today: Only gold will get you onto the box of Wheaties. Only
gold, not silver, not bronze, not a "good try," will get you
immortality--only gold is immortal.
As someone who feels his soul more Hebraic than Hellenic, I keep
thinking that what is eternal about the "eternal flame" is the wish for
immortality. The Olympics is a celebration of youth, of ripeness, of
summer. It is the most sublime of human romances--and this is its
It is appropriate to the neo-paganism of today's America, where one
senses everywhere the obsolesence of a word like "soul." The body is
all, health is all, and death is the defeat of all.
The games begin.
Rodriguez, an author and essayist, is a regular contributor to PBS' The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
Copyright © 1900 Pacific News Service