"She caught the flicker of waving arms, of hats tossed in the air, of something flung against the side of the engine, which was a bunch of flowers.
"As the miles clicked past them, the towns went by, with the stations at which they did not stop, with the crowds of people who had come only to see, to cheer and to hope. She saw garlands of flowers under the sooted eaves of old station buildings, and bunting of red-white-and-blue on the time-eaten walls. It was like the picture she had seen—and envied—in schoolbook histories of railroads, from the era when people gathered to greet the first run of a train. It was like the age when Nat Taggert moved across the country, and the stops along his way were marked by men eager for the sight of achievement. That age, she had thought, was gone; generations had passed, with no event to greet anywhere, with nothing to see but the cracks lengthening year by year on the walls built by Nat Taggert. Yet men came again, as they had come in his time, drawn by the same response."
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
And they came again. Not in the imagination of fiction this time, but in real life. From the hills of Mississippi and Tennessee to the plains of Missouri and Kansas, around the clock, people came to stand every 100 to 200 yards across 9,100 miles of America to cheer, to wave, to sing their salute—now, to the Olympic torch bearers. "God bless you, son, for making me feel like this again," said one woman with gray hair. When asked for her name by a newspaper reporter, she answered, "You just say I'm an American." "Hold it up high, Laddie," shouted a man in a small crowd. "Look at that runner, Honey," a mother told her child. "Look at that runner and always remember him." A farmer, standing on top of his tractor in the middle of a soybean field, merely applauded. Hats came off, and some were tossed in the air; hands were placed over hearts. At dusk, a single bugle echoed the strains of the national anthem which, along with America the Beautiful and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, had sprung spontaneously to the lips of Americans during the day.
From its landing in New York on May 8, 1984, across 33 states, to its arrival in Los Angeles for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games on July 28, the ancient flame of Greece ignited a common spirit of individuals throughout our land. No one expected it. No one should ignore it.
The Olympic torch is the symbol of continuity between the ancient games of Greece and their modern counterpart today, the idea being to bring the light of Greece to the modern site of the games. Originally, the sacred flame was lit at Olympia to honor Zeus. In one of history's ironies, the custom was revived in its present form, a traveling flame, at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 at which Hitler presided. The sun's rays still flame the torch at Olympia in Greece, but now runners carry the flame, passing it in relay fashion, over land, on ships, and on planes, until it reaches the games each year.
Each runner in America carried the flame for one kilometer before passing it on. It was then, as reported in newspaper after newspaper, at that moment of wordless exchange, that some one person along the road would begin to hum or sing softly, "O beautiful for spacious skies.…" Then, everyone was singing together.
The torch was no longer just the symbol of the Olympic Games. It was also the symbol of freedom.
Forty-one vehicles, averaging 125 miles a day, made it all happen. The caravan had to be fed, bunked, showered, and supported in a variety of ways through all kinds of terrain and weather. That kind of support, everyone had counted on. What they didn't count on was the support of thousands of individuals who cheered them on. They knew about the cities where many companies had donated $3,000 each to a local charity in order to have someone carry the torch for a kilometer. They weren't even surprised when thousands of spectators in St. Louis mounted the chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!"—that could have been a competitive chant. Or when groups of runners joined them for a short jog—joggers love a good jog.
What they weren't prepared for was turning a corner at night to find people of all ages standing up with flashlights from sleeping bags where they had been waiting for the passing of a runner. Or the little, rural towns where people lined the sidewalks with candles—mini-torches—to light the runner's way. They were prepared for the cameras…but not for the flags.
All over the countryside, church bells, fire sirens, and truck horns marked the location of the torch. Did Ayn Rand foretell, in Atlas Shrugged, that they would throw flowers? They did. Some people even traveled from other states, where the runners would not cross, to participate in the event. And participate they did. In pickup trucks, in cars, and in vans. Individuals, families, and friends. One little boy on a bicycle stayed with the caravan for 15 miles before police made him go back home. Women emerged from their homes in nightgowns and curlers. No one noticed.
"It's so strong," one runner said with an emotion as strong as the one he was describing. "And it's everywhere outside the cities like a wave moving along with us. I never expected it. But there's all these feelings pent up. And a special chemistry. And when people see the torch, they relate it to patriotism. There's a hunger for that in the land. And for a hero."
Correct, but possibly not complete. True enough, there is a hunger in the land for heroes. But patriotism? Alone? Or could those powerful reactions be symptomatic of values even deeper than patriotism? One man whose employer had given his workers time off to greet the runners may have sensed the depth but shied away from it: "I'm not sure why I'm here," he confessed. "But I know there's more to it than standing in the sun a long time to watch a guy run by in his underwear carrying a huge match."
Yet "a huge match" was the perfect metaphor. That torch may have struck and lit afire something in the souls of countless Americans much more fundamental than patriotism. Chauvinism, alone, would not appear primary enough to be the only operative here; the emotions were too deep, the spirit too strong, to be explained by mere tribal identification. Then, what was the operative? The answer could lie buried beneath repressed or, more likely, unidentified premises to which the distilled emotions that were evoked could be providing dramatic clues.
Could it be that, at root, the Olympic Games are not for many people primarily a competition between nations or even individuals? All political issues (which are many and complex) aside—political issues about who should or should not compete or who will or will not win—the Olympic Games are an unparalleled opportunity, in today's world, to experience, in Ayn Rand's words, "the sight of achievement."
And in America, still the freest country in the world, that torch carried by American men and women across this land just might have created a unique forging of mind and body that, because it was so spontaneous and unanticipated, may be rather revealing. The physical excellence, as exemplified by the games, combined with the moral excellence that is—or was or could be—America at its very best…The Olympics, the symbol of human achievement in the physical arena; America (still) the only symbol of achievement in the moral arena, symbolizing man's right to be free. Unconscious though the forging may have been, and though it all passed on the surface to be pure patriotism, this deeper explanation may answer, in principle, the haunting question of why feeling ran so high and so deep.
Americans may not be hungry only for patriotism in the land. Or only for heroes. This outpouring by individuals of emotional solidarity may mean that they are also hungry for moral justification. And are full of gratitude that they are Americans. For the right reason—because they are free. These individuals appearing, unbidden and unorganized, day and night, in their own individual manner, may grasp, on a grassroots level not fathomed by politicians or professors, the meaning of living in a free country.
If true, we must ask next, however, whether the Americans who came to see the torch knew why they were coming. Probably not. But the fact of their self-generated response can still give hope. It could mean that beneath the cynicism, beneath the disillusionment, beneath even the apathy that pervades the intellectual community in America, there still glimmers, in the people, a ray from the fire that gave freedom its birth, a ray that burst into flame for one bright moment. Did they come to see man's greatest values concretized in one shining glimpse of a human being carrying a torch from the cradle of Western civilization across America? On some level, did they come to witness the light of achievement that can be man, both physically and morally? It would be the stuff of fiction. Could it be real? "Yet men came again, as they had come in his time, drawn by the same response."
A cleaning woman took the afternoon off to stand in front of her home with her brother and her son. They held up the flag that had covered her father's coffin. "It's America, you see," she said. "And we love it."
Perhaps, we do see. Perhaps, we dare hope. For "the best within us."
Alexandra York is the author of several books and numerous articles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: The Best Within Us".