The Hoplite Champion

The silence of fifty-thousand onlookers disseminates a thick veil of tension into the stadium from above. Every four years, the city of Olympia attracts curious voyeurs from all corners of the Greek Empire. Many seek to witness the human incarnations of divine perfection displayed in the dirt ring below. To perform the pinnacle of human speed and strength is a marvelous feat. Victory is met with the highest honor.

A line of twenty figures crouch near the end of the four-hundred-meter oval, each still as stone. Their faces disguised by brass helmets whose metal wings droop down along the racers’ cheeks. Yet from afar, one radiant form stands out among the rest. The Hoplite Champion is no more muscular or handsomely fit than his contenders, but his elegant legs stretch long and mighty, like a mythical creature with the body of a man and legs of an ostrich that glisten pink under the scorching sun. Whispers ripple through the stands, “I bet he can finish the whole lap in forty strides!”

The Hoplite Champion takes no notice. He inhabits a clean silence that makes him translucent to the thousands of eyes gazing through him. Beads of sweat paint his finely sculpted jaw and drip from the dimple in his chin. Eyes cast down to the white dust. The tough skin under his feet sinks into the horizontal grooves carved into the stone starting line. He extends his right arm slightly forward; hand open as though greeting an old friend. His torso tilts toward his left arm, to which a fifteen-pound metal-plated wood shield is tightly cinched. He hugs it close and tenses his incline for the start. Face raised expectantly. Knees bent. Heels hovering, ready to take flight.

The trumpet blasts. Howls and cries from the stadium shatter the empty air as the runners erupt from the earth. The Hoplite Champion instantly catapults ahead of his contenders like a caged wild boar freed again. After only the first stride, however, the weight of the metal grooves on each calf, the helmet and the meter-wide shield clamp down on his body and spirit. The armor reminds of his role in the games. The roaring stadium is stage to an emblem of Zeus’s great might embodied in human flesh and braced for war.

Helmets clank and clang against the racers’ skulls. Bare feet beat into the dirt. Brass-blistered skin clings to scathed bones. The racers feel no pain, as their veins pump adrenaline and dreams that light fire under their feet.

All the racers who chase the Hoplite Champion’s heels see one thing: his heels. To overcome his stride – that marks the finish line. An impossible feat well-suited to be a dazzling dream.

However, the competition is not his game. The Hoplite Champion has been unbeatable for years. And for years he loved nothing more than hearing the Gods whisper in his ear as he flew faster and faster, higher and higher. They egged him on as he sprinted along the cusp of their Godly realm. To him, it was as blissful as the childhood memory of playing tag in the schoolyard.

Then one day a new race was born: The Race of Soldiers. And with it, the battlefield was brought home to the track. The race is no longer about chasing the Gods’ untouchable glory. Instead, runners flee to dodge invisible Persian arrows. The archers’ zone of fire supposedly stretches as far as four-hundred meters.

The cheers that once delighted the Champion in celebrating the Gods’ mortal creation now mock the puppetry at play. Never more can he feel the wind dance along the ridges of his naked body and be free. Teeth grind. Hot air fires from his nose like a train blowing steam. Men clad in armor race to victory. But what of victory? The Hoplite Champion flies on legs that serve a backwards purpose. They start to crack beneath him. The pain of splintered shin bones reminds him that he is human. He can break. Perhaps he is meant to. He isn’t a God, after all. He never will be. The Hoplite Champion is a soldier. His duty is to soldier-on.

He is only a few breaths away from the halfway point: a post planted at the apex of the hairpin-turn at the end of the stadium. It’s designed to aid sprinters in negotiating the tight turn. The Hoplite Champion steps into the bend. His shield clips the wood post and jerks him off-balance. He stumbles. Tumbles, violently. He finally flops into a motionless heap after being tossed like a sock by his own tremendous momentum.

The stadium waits in uneasy silence. Someone gasps. Then shrieks. Screams swell from the front rows and spread like hot flames through the masses. The soldier looks up to see his comrades’ distorted faces looking down at him, but not meeting his eyes. They look lower, to his legs. His eyes drop to match their gaze. When he fell, his shield, still strapped to his left arm, made a clean slice through his groove-plated calf. His dismembered foot lay scattered in the dust. The soldier drops his head back to the earth and looks up to the sky where the Gods play tag somewhere in that mysterious world of blue. He laughs.

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