What Makes An Olympic Hero?

Classics scholar Laura Swift notes that historically, you didn’t have to be a winner to be a hero:

To become a hero meant something concrete in the Greek world: it normally occurred after death, and meant that you’d receive worship at the site of your tomb. Nowadays we’re familiar with the great mythological heroes like Achilles, Ajax, or Theseus, but there were hundreds if not thousands of other heroes, many of whom were real individuals who had died within living memory. And while these people were often made heroes because they’d achieved something memorable, this could involve doing something strange or outlandish just as easily as something good.  …

The historian Herodotus, for example, tells us of a construction worker who was heroized because he was believed to have had the loudest voice in the world. In another even more bizarre story, we learn of a man who became a hero because after his death a swarm of bees made a nest in his skull. The underlying idea seems to have been that these were people who were somehow different from the rest and who stood out. This gave them a power that was believed to abide after their death.

So when you see media attention directed to an eccentric athlete at Sochi, remember that idolizing the improbable has just as good a pedigree as praising the greatest of talents.

Another reason to cheer on Mohammad Karim, who taught himself to ski using wooden planks and today is the sole Pakistani competitor at the Games. A video profile of Karim is seen above.