Authors: Lise Haines
GIRL IN THE ARENA
They became too powerful to live among us, too self-concerned, too visionary, too blind.
The Virgin Suicides
A HISTORY OF THE GLADIATOR SPORTS ASSOCIATION
In 1969 there was a young widower named Joseph Byers who lost his only child, Ned, to the war in Vietnam, when Ned tried to dodge the draft. Ned was a serious asthmatic whose condition became aggravated by any small contact with cats. So he borrowed nine of his friends’ tabbies and minxes and Persians and drove around in his VW Bug with the windows rolled up. The cats laced in and out of Ned’s lap, moved along the back of his seat, nudged the stick shift, and tried to rub against the foot pedals. The plan was to drive around the city and pull right up to an emergency room, and then 4-F all the way. He just couldn’t find a hospital in time. The coroner said that Ned miscalculated the number of cats he needed in the car.
Joe Byers introduced neo-gladiator sport into American life to involve teenage boys in a new form of athletic competition that would be exhilarating while releasing aggressive energy in a safe, clean way. He hoped there would be less need for war over time, especially for useless, savage wars like Vietnam.
Byers purchased plastic shields at a toy store. He whipped up balsa wood swords on his band saw and lathe, and tipped them in soft rubber. He bought swim goggles to protect their eyes, the kind of shin guards Ned had used to play soccer, bicycle gloves and football helmets, and a few catcher’s face guards. Then Byers cleared out his backyard, built a wooden platform, put sand down on top of this, and coaxed his son’s friends over to his house with the offer of a barbeque, television sports, and a chance to honor the dead. Despite some awkward moments and stupid jokes, the boys took to the sport, and soon began inviting more friends over. Weapons were modified so no one would get seriously injured, but it’s possible this concept put him in league with the scientists who worked on atomic energy and didn’t foresee Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
Joe Byers had a cousin, Craig Winsome, who started his own neo-gladiator chapter. He was a tool manufacturer, and came up with a retractable sword and spearhead that made it appear that one’s guts were being sliced or impaled, a small reservoir of artificial blood in the weapons breaking on contact. Craig’s wife, Anna, wrote out the Gladiator Rules as Craig dictated them. Later she penned the original 28 Bylaws, which were expanded to 128 and governed the social mores, attitudes, and conduct of the gladiator wives and eventually the sons and daughters as well. By the early 1980s there were 153 chapters of the Gladiator Sports Enthusiasts, or GSEs, as the group was then called, made up primarily of older teenage boys with some adult branches, and one early effort comprised of a group of women who called themselves the Vestals.
An article in
claimed that some chapters were working with weapons that didn’t retract but ran a body through. Those accounts went largely unconfirmed, but the GSEs went underground, which meant the organization quickly swelled in numbers.
Then four things happened: Chuck Palahniuk, 9/11, the war in Iraq, and a self-help book selling in the millions called
Drawing on the self-actualizing techniques of
, Caesar’s Inc., a holding company located in New York City (not to be mistaken with the Las Vegas group), recognized an opportunity. Caesar’s hired a handful of young Ivy League graduates, offering wild salaries capped by travel, BMW, and hedge fund benefits to join a newly formed NoHo think tank called the Senate. Since Byers and Winsome had never incorporated, and held, in fact, no legal or official paper on their organization, Caesar’s first move was to incorporate the GSA—the Gladiator Sports Association.
The GSA offered cash prizes to the Neo-Glads who fought in their leagues. The first sixty-thousand-seat amphitheater was targeted for Chicago, beating out Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Atlanta.
America got to know Caesar’s spokesperson, a woman with a steely authority who went by the name Sappho. The media focused on her top-model appearance and her Armani suits. She stated that the GSA would “provide a new form of sport slash entertainment slash battle that would capture the American ethos on a scale equal to the NFL.” She said Caesar’s would deliver one hundred able-bodied fighters for the first event.
A reality television program,
was aired to find those one hundred neo-gladiators. The competitors were required to don original costumes, which would in time set off a fierce battle in a fashion industry grown weary of military wear. And though some said Jean Paul Gaultier’s clothes were too flamboyant for actual combat situations, he became the darling of the sport. The Glads, as the competitors came to be known, lived together for eight weeks on an abandoned military base in California, where they attended Ludus Magnus Americus, the first neo-Glad school.
The GSA did not restrict women from competition per se, any more than the NFL does—it was all about meeting certain physical standards. But some said that the sport was hobbled by old-school thinking, the inherent belief that men were by nature more fit to compete, more ready to kill. The women’s leagues were small and, in general, poorly funded. And groups across the country battled over the idea of including fighting women. The Gladiator Wives Association didn’t help much. And though they received a lot of flak for their traditionalist views, they held to the notion that a Glad wife had a vital role to play in their culture.
In one episode, the men, and some women—the Glads—were taken by bus to visit the amphitheater as it neared completion, which was a pretty sappy show with plenty of shots of the Roman Colosseum and Lake Michigan at sunset. During the course of the filming there were several injuries and one accidental death, and some missed their lovers or families so badly they dropped out. A few people hooked up. One marriage occurred.
Caesar’s paid television stations to air Ridley Scott’s
so they could piggyback their ads around car and beer spots and Russell Crowe’s face. The GSA television ads were Nike-esque, beautifully muscled in all respects, and print ads ran in popular fashion and men’s magazines. Single images were reproduced on colossal posters throughout airports and malls. And yes, even Times Square was lit up with gladiator sport. During that first competition there were no fights to the death, and though lions and other large cats were added to the excitement, they were declawed, defanged, desensitized. Fighters were carefully matched. Dwarfs fought dwarfs, men with nets and tridents fought men with nets and tridents, light men light, heavy men heavy. Injuries were considered no worse than the aftermath of a rousing hockey game or a soccer match in Brazil. By all accounts the GSA had pulled off an elegant feat.
The GSA purchased the copyrights to the official Gladiator Rules and the 128 Gladiator Bylaws, and Byers and Winsome became romantic icons, like rotary dial phones. After three years Caesar’s Inc. had a large-scale success on their hands that would soon be echoed in their gaming division, as well as the licensing of hats, swords, T-shirts, and toys.
About this time, a man on death row in Texas, Victor Shroedinger, was scheduled to die in the electric chair but he had a profound fear of electricity. Hoping to die with dignity for his family’s sake, he petitioned the governor. The governor was an ex-professional body builder who never missed a GSA game on television. Shroedinger asked to fight any man or beast with nothing more than a rubber knife. The governor thought the case had merit. Being a highly persuasive man, he managed to get his own senate to pass a small amendment tacked on (in 6-pt. type) to another bill.
Human rights organizations tried to stop the match. They brought up Corcoran State Prison, where the guards had pitted one gang against another in gladiator-type combat. But the amendment passed by a narrow margin. Shroedinger chose a short knife and a garbage can lid for a shield, and Galliano, who was quite taken by the drama of Shroedinger’s story, designed his outfit. Shroedinger managed to stay in the game a full fifteen minutes. He was stabbed directly in the heart and appeared to die a happy man.
Other Texas death row inmates followed in his wake, then other states released their dead men walking to fight—all becoming short-term Glads—pitted nicely against one another. This provoked nonstop media attention, with strident views from academics, parent groups, lawmakers, lobbyists, and essayists. But Glad sport had a way of defying gravity, a way of changing essential rules.
Then there was the man, Wes C., who wrote an op-ed piece in the
. He pointed to the terrible inequity, that a death row inmate could commit a heinous crime and be granted rights that law-abiding, tax-paying citizens were not. He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and wanted to wrap his life up quickly and to some small glory, to test his mettle once and for all, gladiator style. Several groups supported his efforts, as did a couple of doctors newly released from jail for physician-assisted suicide. There was, of course, strong opposition to letting the op-ed man die in the arena. And yet, over time the rules evolved, were challenged, revised, and superseded by new rules. Eventually Glad sport, though not always a fight to the death, certainly offered this possibility.
Daughter of Seven Gladiators
The clerk asks for my autograph.
—Do it right across my face, he says.
Usually when we’re out in public everyone wants Allison’s autograph. My mother’s as famous as the men she’s married. Over the years, she has signed stomachs, tip sheets, shoes, baby carriages, even a sandwich once, and of course thousands of arena souvenir booklets. But until recently, few have asked for my signature.
Before I can stop her, Allison tells the clerk that I’m the daughter of seven gladiators. Allison is on her usual kick. She wants me to open up more.
? The guy laughs. —I bet I’ve seen you on VH1, right?
—Not really, I say.
—No, no it’s ESPN. I know who you are. We’re talking
, right? Swords, shields, heads flying, arms lopped off? Not that TV show with a bunch of batons and cargo nets, right?
—Mortal combat, Allison confirms with a polite smile, —though not always to the death.
—That’s what I mean, he says. —
We’re at this store in Cambridge that has an underground operation selling War Tickets. They aren’t actual tickets, they’re just called that. You place bets on which countries we’ll end up going to war with—in other words, which countries we will bomb senseless. The store handles bets on all sorts of standard gambling as well, scratch offs, quick picks. Allison says our chance of winning on War Tickets is a whole lot better than the state lottery and now that I’ve turned eighteen, I can buy my own.
The glass countertop she leans against is part of a cabinet holding an entire display, a miniature Baghdad scene with U.S. and Iraqi troops, soldiers taking cover, heading out on raids, tiny men and women that look like they’ve already blown up. My guess is he got that effect by melting them with a lighter.
The clerk hands me a marker now. He holds his hair off his forehead so I have plenty of room to scrawl over his greasy brow. I admit it’s really the only space—he’s heavily tattooed everywhere else.
I shoot Allison a panicked look, but she continues with her ticket picks. I lift the pen.
—Don’t worry if you hit the nose. It’s been broken so many times I can’t feel a thing.
—This is permanent marker, I say.
—Nothing’s permanent, he says.
So I sign Lyn G. quickly and then I buy mine: five Irans, three Afghanistans, two North Koreas. It’s easy to feel horrible about this kind of purchase—being a pacifist and all—but if it’s going to happen anyway, I just want to make enough money so Allison doesn’t have to worry as much about my brother, Thad.
Next time I’ll probably spread out, hit more countries, but I’m certain Iran is the place for war, that Afghanistan’s a close runner up. Tommy, my seventh father, thinks so. He lives inside the newspaper, and we have a deal—we’re going to split the money if either of us wins, so he wouldn’t steer me wrong. They say the proceeds go to fighting terrorism here and abroad—well, at least 2 percent. So you could say we’re betting on death, or you could say it’s the other way around.
When I reach for the change, the clerk says, —You guys aren’t screwing with me, right? You’re the daughter of
I shrug because of course it’s true, but when I hear it said aloud like that I think of weirdness, of odd attractions out in the desert where people pay a buck to see a live chicken without a head. It’s moments like this I wish I were finished being a daughter. But I know you have to be careful about what you wish for.