Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Olympic Glories: Revisiting Chariots of Fire

Piles of garbage in the Rio bay, on the Rio shore, and in the athletes' veins--I wanted to get away from the real Olympics for a bit, find some more pleasant version of same, and the great escape that came to mind was Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy-award winning drama about the 1924 Olympics, about brotherhood, about teamwork: gorgeous young men running down the beach in a pack, the Scottish athlete missionary, Erik Liddell, burr-ing: "When I run, I feel His pleasure." (Make that "rohnn." Mayke that "play-zoor.") Liddell's disapproving missionary sister saying, "You're running so much you've no time (ti-yum!) to stand still!" She thinks running removes him from God. He knows God "made me fast!"
Oh, do I hear the beginnings of my Scots Presbyterian ancestors, that ragtag crew escaping the Highlands, probably slightly ahead of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and hoofing it from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas. The clan of Scots highlanders that became mercenary soldiers for King William of Orange, sometime around the Glorious Revolution.
Until the 1580s, when Mary, Queen of Scots got beheaded, my family crouched in caves, ripping apart stolen sheep with their bare hands, lifting out the guts to make haggis--which got bolted down with homemade mead--and hiding the remains before the Laird of the manor caught them. The Laird often caught them anyway, stringing up the men before disemboweling them and then publicly exercising his right to prima nocta, secunda nocte,  tertia nocte, and all the other noctes he wanted, with our clans' women. Meanwhile, my ancestors spent their days trying to get wheat to grow out of rocks, slaughtering opposing clans and swimming upstream ahead of the salmon. They passed their Sundays at the local kirk, listening to sermons on how slowly and completely we would all burn in hell. When the chance to fight religious wars for King William of Orange arose, these hardy Scotsmen girded their loins, packed an extra sporran and ghillies, fought like the wild highlanders they were, and when the wars were all over, sat damply on their kilts in steerage on their way to the colonies. The few offspring that, generations later, achieved prominence, demonstrated talent for warlike deals with Hessians during the American revolution.
Nostalgic for this idealistic, though uncomfortable past, I watch the film's English lord graciously ceding his right to run to the principled Liddell, who won't run on a Sunday. The Jewish athlete getting dissed for being a Jew, running a race he's lost previously to Liddell, and shaking hands with him. 
Respect! Honor! No Doping, apart from beer! A simpler life and training, during which athletes appeared to be doing those funny 1950s Royal Canadian Air Force drills that in real life knock your knees out. But these men all got along so well, driven by honor and ideals and love.
"See, kids," I said, as Liddell preached to a crowd of working-class Scots drenched in torrential rains after booking it around a hilly, gray landscape, "That's where your ancestors came from! Those Scots Presbyterians!"
They'd only heard about the Bavarian Catholics, so were impressed. Wood and stone churches with plain wooden benches, stark wooden crosses. A far cry from those gorgeous Baroque cupids that adorn the cathedral in Bavaria. 
We all ate popcorn, basked in the spirit of the Olympics, and felt refreshed--ready to turn to the real thing in the morning. 

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