Sunlight of the idols

What seemed doomed to be kitsch – the lighting of the Olympic Flame for the Athens Games with a supplication to «Apollo, god of the sun and the idea of light» – turned out to be a moving and profound moment. Although burdened further by the contrived symbolism of being held on Greece’s independence day, and performed with a ponderous, Germanic classicism that died out decades ago, the ceremony seemed to reach deep into the past and pull up something of the lean and gracious ritual of a very different time. The ephemeral fell away under the weight of ceremony. At last, the Olympics broke through the cloud of uncertainty concerning the state of the world and, secondarily, Athens’s readiness. The Games are truly here. March 25 was a moment of unity, a marriage of distance and time. The rays of the sun lit a flame on the earth, the ancient birthplace of the Olympic Games served as the starting point for their latest manifestation, runners set out in a relay to carry the flame to all five continents on which humans live. These are the Olympics today – an ancient concept in the age of globalization. They are more meaningful and more magnificent than any problems they may face, because they represent the willing unity of all humanity. Like the great invention of our era, the United Nations, they bring every nation together. But the Olympics seem to take on a greater significance, both because of their ancient pedigree and the fact that they bring together the best in every nation’s youth. And surely no ideal can be a more modern concept than the fact that the rambunctious city states that competed in the ancient Games observed a truce to allow them all to take part. The idea of an Olympic Truce, which has been pushed so hard by Greece and adopted enthusiastically by the United Nations, is truly something worth fighting for so that the Games can take on even greater significance for the world. And the flame-lighting ceremony on March 25 gave us an indication of the significance of this. The ceremony was held at a time when the world has seldom seemed more dark and more desperate, where insecurity and uncertainty stretch into the future. There is a feeling of war in the air. The specter of messianic terrorism hovers over the whole earth, with no one able to guess where the next massacre will take place. Greece, host of the first great international event in the age of mass terror, finds itself at the center of concern. In our neighborhood, the Middle East is as restive and unpredictable as ever, with the US invasion of Iraq having had the opposite effect to that which its evangelists had proclaimed: No weapons of mass destruction were found and the multiple genies of ethnic power grabs and anti-Western fury are at loose over Baghdad and the region. The credibility of the United States has been shaken, which is bad for a world that has to depend on the one superpower to throw its weight behind the decisions of the United Nations. The Balkans are still struggling to come to terms with ethnic strife as last week’s rampage by Albanians in Kosovo made so clear. Tragically, the West’s rush to war on the former Yugoslavia continues to enjoy the complicity of international news media that did little then and does little now to illustrate both the complexity of the situation and the simple truth that those to whom harm is done will do harm in turn. (The Balkans, like the Middle East, though, are defined by the fact that no two groups can agree on the original sin and the final blow.) So although Slobodan Milosevic might be on trial in The Hague, Serbia’s future is still shaky and Kosovo remains an open wound – no one wants to touch it and no one knows what it will turn into. Greece’s immediate neighbors – Albania, Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – are all struggling, with success and setbacks, to improve the lot of their citizens but are plagued by a pandemic of organized crime. Greece’s relations with Turkey, incomparably better than they were just five years ago, still depend very much on what kind of settlement will be reached over Cyprus and, even more so, on how things work out between the island’s two communities as they come to reconcile fact and fantasy in their past, present and future. (The solution to the Cyprus problem will be the beginning of a new story more than the end of a previous one, so the prenuptial agreement counts.) These specific risks, seen against a backdrop of general economic malaise in the world, including Europe, create a sense of unease as to what the future holds. But Greece also has a host of domestic issues to deal with, from the need for pension reform and greater competitiveness to getting ready for the Olympics and paying for them. And then suddenly, Sisyphus glimpses a ray of light ahead and senses that this time he is close to the peak toward which he labors. It may all be hocus pocus and fancy dress, with actresses dressed as the priestesses of long-dead gods, but the fact is that the light is there and so are we. And the high priestess’s voice chokes with emotion and awe the way she would if Hera – proud, always ready to sulk and scold – loomed over her. The crowd that broke the security cordon to be near the ceremony was also real, and not in fancy dress. The excitement of the people along the route, and who will line the flame’s course across so much of the world, will be real, focused on something that is unique. The gods of Olympia may be dead. Maybe all gods are dead and idols gone. But maybe in this world of endless chatter, when we can have everything and nothing, our devotion to the significant moment is not just another step for Sisyphus but a place of rest. Because the rituals we have chosen to honor live on, through us. And in a world unhinged, the traveling circus of the Olympic Games suddenly becomes something to honor and protect. And Greece, like an actress dressed as a high priestess, will cry real tears of pride.

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