"The legacy of heroes," Benjamin Disraeli told the House of Commons in 1849, "is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example."
His appraisal still is shared by many of us who find a happy diversion in sports and edification in our admiration of those who excel at them. It's also why this has been a particularly dispiriting week for those of us in California.
First, of course, there was the conviction of baseball's greatest hitter, Barry Bonds, on charges that he obstructed a federal inquiry into top athletes' illicit use of performance enhancing drugs. Why a player like Bonds, whose dazzling natural gifts virtually guaranteed him a place in the Hall of Fame, might even have bothered seeking a chemical edge is a tragic mystery.
Then there was the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who was fined $100,000 by the National Basketball Assn. for shouting an obscenity linked to an anti-gay epithet at a referee who'd called him for a foul. This is another of those times when the sublime Bryant seems to have been put on Earth to remind us that preternatural physical grace, bottomless competitive drive and the personality of a thoughtless, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed twit can coexist in one body. Bryant apologized, but is appealing the fine.
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings of the NBA are preparing to depart a city that loves and supports them, all because the owners can't make enough money out of an arena that happens to be a delightful place to watch basketball. The franchise owners hope to decamp to greener pastures, in Anaheim.
And then there are the Dodgers, who this week returned to Chavez Ravine for the first time since the series in which a couple of their fans beat a visiting Giants backer so badly that he remains in a coma. Since this luckless franchise fell into the hands of the venal and incompetent McCourt family, what was a baseball jewel, Dodger Stadium, has deteriorated into a public nuisance made dangerous by unpoliced thugs and the owners' desire to make as much as possible by selling them beer. This is a stadium once so wholesome that it had a "nuns' day"; now, so many uniformed LAPD officers are on the scene that it looks like a gang-infested neighborhood singled out for special enforcement action — which is sort of what it is.
It's tempting to think that much of this melancholy news has to do with the transformation of professional sports into fodder for the insatiable maw of the 24-hour cable and broadcast television system — what might be called the sports-industrial complex. Bonds, for example, seems a legitimately tragic figure, undone by the movement of great athletes out of the sporting milieu and into the corrosive culture of celebrity.
Before we attribute all that's wrong to the relationship between sports and broadcast media, though, it's worth remembering that the links between competitive athletics and the dominant medium of the time extend back to the origins of our culture. Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek lyric poet Pindar was admired for his epinicia: triumphal odes to sporting accomplishment. These were not celebrations of sport itself but of specific winners in that era's major league, the Olympic Games. Here is an excerpt from "Olympian Ode 1":
And if, my heart, you wish to tell
Of prizes won in trials of strength,
Seek no radiant star whose beams
Have keener power to warm, in all the wastes of upper air, than the Sun's beams,
And sing no place of games to surpass the Olympian Games.
It is from there that the song of praise, plaited of many voices,
Is bound fast to a crown by the subtle thoughts of poets.
At first blush, Pindar seems to speak to us through time with an elegance of thought and expression that puts the relationship between fan and champion on a level too lofty for us even to comprehend. It seems that way until you recall that the odes were composed for money, on commissions from the victors' families.
If there is a fault revealed in this dispiriting week, it may not be in our games or in those who excel at them, but in our immoderate and foolish idealization of both.