Monday, March 05, 2007


In which we mull over the L.A. Marathon of today and the Marathon of the past

On Sunday the City of Los Angeles held its annual marathon. A guy from Kenya won in the men's competition, as usual, while a woman from Russia won in the women's (it's usually a Swede). Behind them came about 30,000 foot-sore losers. No surprise there.

The race began a few hundred yards from my apartment. I know because I was awakened by half a dozen T.V. helicopters flying low over The Grotto early in the morning to observe the spectacle.

Anyway, after lounging around reading the paper all morning, I decided to catch "The Departed" at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood to see what all of the Oscar hubbub was about. From what I can tell the hubbub was just that and not much more. I give it about a six. (And, by the way, remind me never to trust the Boston Irish.)

Taking the subway back to The Grotto I shared a car with about a dozen teenage marathonistas wearing medals showing that, if they didn't win, they at least finished. I congratulated one young girl who blushed. Then I asked her, "So do you know why it’s called a 'marathon?'" She shook her head. I asked another. He didn't know either. This sparked a round of questioning among their friends, answered by shoulder shrugs and phrases like "Dude! Why you ask me?"

The Battle of Marathon, 490 B.C., was one of the most important victories in Western history. Had the Persians won the day instead of the Greeks, there would very likely never have been what we today call "Western Civilization," with all of its ideas of democracy and its beliefs in personal freedom and individual rights. The modern marathon, of course, commemorates that victory and the running of the Athenian hoplite, Pheidippides, from the city of Marathon, where the battle took place, back to Athens, to report the victory. Pheidippides is said to have croaked from exhaustion, right there on the spot.

It's a wonderful thing that so many people today live in such outstanding conditions -- conditions that only personal liberty and leisure time can bring about -- that they are able to run more than 26 miles one day and go to work or to school the next, barely even limping. What’s not so wonderful is that we owe much of it to the blood, courage and sacrifice (not to mention the superior reasoning) of our Greek forebears -- and we don't even have the smarts to acknowledge it.
Yet there may be hope. This weekend opens "300," the special effects, violence-fest extravaganza based on the tale of the 300 Spartans, directed by Zack Snyder of "Dawn of the Dead" fame. Yes, I know, that was Thermopulae, not Marathon. The point is that, where traditional education may fail to engage, Hollywood sometimes fills the gap. No, I don't mean Hollywood is faithful to history. I mean that Hollywood films and T.V. programs about historical events can whet the appetite of the curious mind to learn more. It certainly happened to me, growing up on an audio-visual diet of old war movies, sword-and-sandal epics, Hogan's Heroes, Victory at Sea and so forth. Perhaps a few young minds will be intrigued enough by this film's violence and drama to explore the history and ideas behind them... Or maybe they'll just come away thinking the Persians liked cool face piercings.


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