Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
Oh! My Hero!
October 9, 1998
We love to have heroes. Even more, we love to tear them down. This is
not a new phenomenon. One of the great Greek heroes was Odysseus. He
was, of course, a warrior, the Greek commander in the Trojan War. He
thought up the idea of the Trojan Horse. But later classical writers
portrayed Odysseus as treacherous and cruel. Under his Latin name,
Ulysses, he appears in Dante's hell. So much for heroes.
In mythology a hero was a man of great strength and courage, favored by
the gods, perhaps descended from one or two of them. More recently
heroes have usually been soldiers. In our country George Washington,
Robert E. Lee in the South, General Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, "Blood
and guts" Patton have filled the bill.
Today, with the advent of mass and speedy communication, the hero is the
one who gets the most publicity, and his term as a hero can be very
Gerald Johnson, who wrote a book called "Heroes and Hero Worship," comes
a lot closer to what we think of today. "Heroes are created by popular
demand, sometimes out of the scantiest materials." They are very often
FloJo's recent tragic death at the age of 38 made me think of heroes.
With due apologies to my feminist sisters and to the P. C. experts, I'm
going to stick to "hero" as a genderless word. FloJo was a hero when we
needed one. In 1988 Florence Griffith Joyner, that dazzling, glamorous,
muscular runner known as FloJo earned the title of "The Fastest Woman in
the World." At the Seoul Olympic Games she won three gold medals and
one silver. When she ran with her hair streaming out behind her, she
redefined the term Superwoman. She ran 100 meters in 10.49 seconds, a
world record not yet equaled. But she was more than an athlete. She
had grace and style, and six inch long painted fingernails. And she was
beautiful, which is very rare for a hero. Her running costumes which
she designed herself and were different one for every race, almost made
people forget her running.
As we all know, she died in her sleep last week, and almost immediately
the rumors began. She had been on drugs. No woman could run that fast
without drugs. The drugs killed her. No matter that she had been
repeatedly tested and found clean. No matter that she had lived a
productive, active life since her retirement. Build up a hero and then
knock her down.
I don't follow major league baseball very closely, but you couldn't miss
it this year. With Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in a down to the wire
race for the title of Home Run King, we had two heroes. McGwire won,
but even before the final run, Woody Paige in the Denver Post was
passing along the rumor that Latin American pitchers have secretly been
pitching soft balls to Sammy who grew up in the Dominican Republic. On
the other hand, McGwire has used the legal drug androstenedione, which
may or may not explain forearms the size of young oak trees. Ah
heroes. Build 'em up and knock 'em down.
Princess Di is a hero to millions, but even before her tragic death she
was grist for the rumor mills trying to bring her down. And John
Glenn is a hero now for a second time, but somebody, somewhere will
find his flaw and exploit it.
My friend the philosopher is the expert on mythology and history, and
she assures me that in literature all heroes have a fatal flaw. It is
obvious that several centuries have not changed that theory. We still
expect our heroes to be perfect, and when they turn out to be human we
tear them down. She even suggests that Albert Schweitzer probably
wouldn't get a sidebar in Time these days unless he made off with a
native African woman half his age.
We love our heroes. But not enough to let them be heroic for very
long. I think I will stick with Madeleine Albright and Xena the
Warrior Princess. The only thing that can bring Xena down is her
producer. If her ratings ever go down and she gets cancelled, she'll go
out with flair. She always wins.