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Grappling with an image

It was with some fascination that we followed news reports of the fatal shooting, allegedly at the hand of John E. Du Pont, of Olympic wrestler David Schultz at Du Pont’s estate in Pennsylvania. Journalists were keen to highlight the bizarreness of Du Pont’s recent behaviour (reportedly driving two cars into a lake and dynamiting a fox’s den, killing the three animals inside), keen to point up the high regard Schultz enjoyed among the wrestling fraternity, keen to describe Du Pont’s largesse in donating hundreds of thousands of dollars, training facilities, room and board, and even private jet flights to up-and-coming wrestlers – and to wrestlers like Schultz, whose love of this ill-understood, impecunious sport led him to try for an Olympic comeback at the advanced age of 36.

But we noticed, buried in a news-wire story, a reference to a 1988 complaint by André Metzger, a coach at Villanova University, of a sexual advance by Du Pont. The estranged heir to the Du Pont fortune – and his solicitor – fervently denied the charge at the time. Other sources now contend that Metzger’s accusation was false. (Metzger declined comment in the wake of the Schultz shooting.) We wonder, though, if Du Pont had more recently found himself caught up in the mÎlstrom of homoeroticism that surrounds the sport.

Unlike the professional-wrestling bouts that are a staple of late-night TV, Olympic or Greco-Roman wrestlng is based on a rigid set of rules and relies on strategy as much as strength. Every bout is a spectacle of combatants bodily grappling one another with the aim of overpowering the opponent – or, failing that, of executing the right moves to rack up the larger number of points under the sport’s elaborate scoring system. With few females competing, most wrestling bouts are male-male events, an echt-masculine gladiatorial spectacle that is the stuff of gay fantasies. For some homosexual men, wrestling encounters – or wrestlers themselves, superbly fit and clothed only in skimpy, revealing singlets – are an erotic fantasy come to life.

So a big question arises: Did Du Pont shoot Schultz (as he is alleged to have done) after Schultz spurned a sexual advance by Du Pont? “I highly doubt that,” says Jim Scherr, executive director of USA Wrestling, the sport’s governing body, “and I would think it would be absurd and ridiculous that any of that would play any part of it.” Cody Bryant, managing editor of Wrestling USA, says “it just amazes me that Dave, being a family man and being married, that someone that might be a homosexual or whatever would try to make a pass at him. That’s what surprises me. But then again I don’t know anything about John Du Pont.”

Others in the sport, however, were familiar with Du Pont, if only by reputation. Richard Deschatelets, a longtime wrestling coach at Brock University in Ontario, notes that he knew “the two very well, and you know, that’s something that nobody would say out in the open that Du Pont’s a homosexual, even though that’s [what] just about everybody figured out just [by] the way he handled things.” Ron Good, editor of Amateur Wrestling News, reiterates rumours he has heard when he says “I think that Du Pont was most likely a gay person, and he certainly would make attempts to do whatever he wanted to do with the wrestlers that he had in there.” (There are no confirmed reports of any “attempts,” and Du Pont’s only marriage ended in 1985.)

Steve Kokker, a Montreal filmmaker working on an independent video on the homoeroticism of wrestling, has spent time with wrestlers and observes that “the pleasure of body contact, of closeness, of male bonding and things like that, I think, are enjoyed by these guys. But if these guys feel a greater desire than that – like slipping beyond what might be termed ‘male bonding’ or comradeship or all of what people would call team spirit into actual erotic or sexual feelings – to what extent that happens is dangerous to speculate on.” Dangerous, that is, to (straight) wrestlers’ desire to be taken seriously as athletes rather than a gay porno movie made flesh.

For a sport in which body contact is paramount, the homoeroticism of wrestling is truly a touchy subject. Few gay men, closeted or not, compete in wrestling, though it was one of the more popular spectator sports at Gay Games IV in 1994 (where the entire competition was sanctioned by USA Wrestling, making it “official”). With few homosexuals among practitioners, some in the sport may be keen to minimize homosexuals among spectators as well. Jim Scherr of USA Wrestling advances a conservative view: “I would think that if we felt people were perceiving the sport as homoerotic, we would certainly think that is a public-relations or a perception problem in the sport.”

Originally written 1996 (for the New Yorker, unpublished) ¶ Updated here 2010.04.07 12:48

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