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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

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To the Ancient Greeks, the Olympics were a form of worship. To see the swiftness and strength of athletes was to behold the movements of the gods. Millennia later, our regard of Olympic champions is less reverent; the Wheaties box is one of the loftiest pedestals that extolls them. But to see record-setting multiple medalist Michael Phelps float through the water and champion gymnasts Paul Hamm and Carly Patterson bend their bodies every which way in midair—and do so at the place where the Olympics were born in antiquity and revived a century ago—was to sense the ancients' awe at the beauty and grace of human movement. The exhilaration of watching athletic achievement deepened our disdain for cowards who cut corners. When shot put champion Irina Korzhaneko, who won gold at the ancient stadium in Olympia, tested positive for steroids, it was the ultimate acts of disrespect for a sacred sports setting (and a reminder that ancient cheaters were sometimes punished with floggings). Exceptional ability was demonstrated elsewhere last month, as reports emerged of an eleven-year-old boy in the Gulf of Mexico who fought off a shark with his bare hands, by punching it in the gills. Even in our worst moments, our better angels can take over; a drunk driver in Vermont pulled a police car over and asked to be arrested.

Julia Child, whose cooking show endeared her to Americans and was the longest-running public TV program ever, died in August, two days before her 92nd birthday. Czeslaw Milosz, whose poetry earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 and captured the suffering and hope of Polish citizens in a Communist regime, died at age 93. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who photographed everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Marilyn Monroe, had an eye for what he called "the decisive moment." Fay Wray's terror at the sight of King Kong in the 1933 classic went down in film history. Frank Sanache was the last of the Meskwaki Indian code talkers in World War II. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who started candid conversations about death with her book On Death and Dying, and was influential in the creation of the hospice system, died last month at the age of 78.

Timeline: July 2004
Timeline: August 2003


From the New York Times :

MTSKHETA, Georgia — Georgia once had more than 13,000 police officers on its roads. This evening it effectively had none. Cars careered by at 90 miles an hour. The officers looked bored. Asked why they were not working, they exchanged smirks. "We are not functioning anymore," [one] said. Put another way, the traffic police had been fired. Georgia has had what it calls its Rose Revolution, the bloodless nudge last year that pushed President Eduard A. Shevardnadze from power. Now it is having a road revolution, utterly changing what it is like to drive in one corner of the former Soviet Union. This summer Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr. Shevardnadze's successor, dismissed his nation's traffic police officers. … For a month in Georgia there were almost no traffic police at all. … Mr. Saakashvili appears to have struck a decisive blow against one of the most loathed figures to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

TORONTO — If the kimono or chicken curry eventually join the maple leaf, the hockey stick and the beaver as Canadian icons, then so be it. Thus goes the thinking of multiculturalism, the official doctrine of the government for nearly 50 years, and by now a value ingrained on the broader society. The minaret has been welcome, too, in this otherwise secular society where fewer and fewer people go to church but more than a hundred mosques have cropped up in recent years. But even here, tolerance has its limits, and the question of where to draw the line can be a tricky one, especially when an increasing number of immigrants come from societies with vastly different values. A group called the Canadian Society of Muslims is testing those boundaries by establishing the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice to apply the legal code called Shariah, based on the Koran, to settle disputes over property, inheritance, marriage and divorce.


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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant atBooks & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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