Like many of us, I have been riveted to the Olympics. The melodramatic cliché of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat the human drama of athletic competition,” is intoxicating. One of my favorite movies is “Chariots of Fire,” a fascinating story of two completely different British runners who compete for the gold at the 1924 Olympics. If you haven’t seen it, see it!
As a kid, I dreamed of being an Olympic athlete but my dreams were quickly shattered by a guy from the projects who knocked me out in the quarter finals of the Golden Gloves. There is something indefinable in the Olympics that springs from the soul. Who hasn’t dreamed of being an Olympic athlete? A chance to be a hero, to be immortal, is basic to the human condition. That’s exactly what drove Achilles.
Are Olympic athletes really heroes? Typically, they are not. However, an example of a heroic Olympian was Jesse Owens. Jesse displayed not only great endurance, but also mental determination and courage in defiantly winning four medals before Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games.
I doubt if there is a universal hero because heroics are arbitrary. I’ve known some heroes and none of them wore a gold medal around his neck. Please don’t tell me that Kobe Bryant is a hero…pleeeease. The word hero is used far too freely. All sorts of athletes are called heroes and then two weeks later they’re not.
The word hero comes from the ancient Greeks. For them, a hero was a mortal who had done something so far beyond the normal scope of human experience that they left an immortal memory, and thus received worship like that due the gods. Heroes are extraordinary. Their most significant contribution is to expand our sense of what is possible for a human being. We need heroes because they help define the limits of our aspirations. We define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals — things like courage, honor, and justice — largely define us.
Is Michael Phelps a hero? Likewise, are Misty May Treanor and Nastia Liukin heroes? They are extraordinary athletes and deserve our adulation, but they are not heroes.
But Lin Hao is.
He’s the little guy who accompanied basketball player Yao Ming during the opening ceremonies. Lin Hao is the 9-year-old boy who survived the earthquake in Sichuan. After he pulled himself out of the ruins he went back into the rubble to rescue two classmates, pulling them to safety. During the rescue, he was hit by falling rubble suffering injuries on his head and arms. While his classmates (10 survivors out of 32 students) were waiting for help, he encouraged them to sing songs to keep their spirits up. When asked why he risked his life, he said, “I was the hall monitor; it was my job to look after my classmates.”
Lin Hao is indeed a hero. Unfortunately, such heroics will succumb to popular culture and be marginalized by the seduction of celebrity. The Roman poet Horace believed that culture often ignores that which is grandeur: “Many heroes lived before Agamemnon but they are all unknown and consigned to oblivion because they had no bard to sing their praises.”
Heroes are a response to a deep and powerful impulse, the need to emulate and idealize. We need to learn that character is as important as intellect, that idealism is superior to cynicism, and that wisdom should come before information. We need to see life not only as it is, but as it ought to be.
None of us will make the Olympics, but we can be heroes. We don’t have to become heroes overnight, just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up and discovering we have the strength to stare it down.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor specializing in students transition to college. He is a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com or write him in care of the Valley Sun, P.O. Box 38, La Cañada, CA 91012.