The Olympic General

Posted on 2012 August 6


There it was, emblazoned on a widescreen TV: the London Olympics. Athletes surged and strained, doing battle, winning and losing, basking in glory or limping off into obscurity. The shimmer of gold medallions adorned many proud young warriors. An aura of ancient Greece hovered over the events.

That night, I had a dream:

In a towering room, on a raised grate in front of a huge fireplace, lies an ancient memorial to fallen Greek warriors. It’s a sculpture, surprisingly modern, with three huge logs — are they real, or stone replicas? — stretched out left-to-right, one log atop the other two. Adorning them are three shiny golden shields: one is attached to a knot atop the upper log, while the other two are attached to the ends of the logs. A famous classical Greek general — apparently immortal, his heroic body colored gray, as if a statue come to life — orates on the bad taste of the memorial: “It shows no face! It dulls the spirit. It has no honor!” I examine the memorial more closely and realize he might be right: it’s not all that interesting, abstract to the point of meaninglessness. Still, I’m not dead-set against it, as is the general. After all, if it’s what the ancient Greeks approved, we should respect their choice.

The general picks up a huge, long-handled mallet and begins striking at the memorial, breaking off a piece of the top shield, then smashing the logs and the rest of the sculpture. The attack is brutal and theatrical, as if the general were swinging a sword in battle. I’m taken aback at the affrontery of this desecration of something long considered a sacred cultural relic. But the general is determined, and many of the witnesses seem to approve.

A lot of the Olympic symbolism is fairly obvious: Greek warriors, golden shields of battle, the long-lasting logs of tradition. But why would the general destroy something emblematic of his era? And why wait until now? Is he a reactionary who has tired of the banality of modern era? Is he calling out a warning? If so, against what?

The Olympic coverage, for its faults, has been pretty impressive, and the latest TV technology affords us amazing access to statistics and context. Here’s the list of contestants and their scores; here is a diagrammed analysis of the previous high dive; there is the World Record line scooting across the pool just ahead of the front swimmer.

It’s also kind of schmaltzy. The instant interviews with the winners, while providing intimacy, also bring everyone down to earth, their heroism evaporating in sophomoric celebration. And the opening ceremonies reeked of showbiz. None of that really bothers me, though; I’m enjoying the Games as much as the next person. It’s all just a big event; it doesn’t matter, not the way a war or an epidemic or an election or a hurricane or a moon landing seem to matter.

Yet the ancient Greek general is angry. And I can’t quite put my finger on why.