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Sports Literature: Gay Male  
 
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The male athlete is an important gay icon. The literary significance of the athlete and sports changes, however, with the shifting history of sexual culture. Moreover, the cultural significance of the athlete depends not only on the historical construction of gender and sexuality, but also of sports itself.

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, male homosexuality, especially , was celebrated as the highest form of love, as Plato writes in the Symposium. This valorization of pederasty, of course, reflects the particular form of patriarchy that was at work in Greek culture of the time.

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The connection between athletics and pederastic sexuality was facilitated by the importance of the gymnasium in Greek social and cultural life; it was a gathering place both for young men (ephebes) who exercised naked and older men, such as the famed Socrates, who while admiring the young athletes would hold forth on the politics and philosophy of the time.

Greek men were devoted to the kouroi (beautiful young men) who distinguished themselves in athletics. The great poet from Thebes, Pindar (518-438 B.C.E.), wrote many odes celebrating the beauty and accomplishments of athletes, the most famous being the Olympian Odes. These poems revered the paradigm of young Greek manhood, kalokagathia, meaning the mixture of physical beauty (kalon) and valor (to agathon).

Pindar's odes show that for the Greeks homosexual attractiveness and athleticism were one and the same. The great athletic competitions--the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games--were religious festivals in which naked young men competed for immortality, a feat accomplished by becoming famous in athletic victory. For the Greeks, immortality depended on being remembered. Pindar's veneration of athletes, therefore, also had a religious dimension.

Swimming and Bathing

A notable and long-standing literary heritage surrounds swimming and bathing. This has been amply documented by Charles Sprawson in Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (1992). He offers numerous literary references to the baths and the myriad pleasures of swimming and being naked with other men through the ages.

The homosexual baths of the twentieth century seem rather ordinary compared to Classical Roman pleasures, where, for example, Tiberius is reported to have swum among rose petals while specially trained naked boys would swim up between his legs and nibble.

But bathing scenes are familiar in much literature, ranging from the Idylls of Theocritus to Whitman's "Song of Myself" to E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1905).

Modern Attitudes

From the late nineteenth century on, the literary connection between homosexuality and sports has reflected the social discourses that have shaped both historically. Several trends can be noted.

In fiction, athleticism has been portrayed as a personal proclivity that indicates the masculine "normality" of homosexual characters. In other works, homosexuality is symbolic of a youthful, ambiguous sexual naïveté that is eventually transcended. And in others, athleticism is sexually fetishized as indicative of a particularly "hot" male body, promising the eroticism of an especially robust sexual scene.

The nonfiction of gay male sports literature includes several biographies and autobiographies of noted homosexual athletes. There is also a nascent scholarly literature that crosses the bridge between gay studies and sports studies, documenting the social phenomenon of homosexuality in contemporary sports culture.

Athleticism and Masculinity

Gore Vidal, in The City and the Pillar (1948), describes the experience of a young professional tennis player, Jim Willard, coming to accept himself as homosexual. Vidal's choice of tennis was probably inspired by the homosexuality of the great tennis star Bill Tilden. Jim's athleticism and that of the men to whom he is attracted is an emblem of normal masculinity, which Vidal contrasts with the perverted effeminacy characteristic of the homosexual stereotype.

This equation of athleticism, masculinity, and normality is attributable to the cultural significance of twentieth-century North American sports. The growing importance of athleticism in North American society was the product of a deliberate attempt to assert a masculine influence on the lives of young men.

As America changed from being a rural agrarian to an urban industrial society, fathers were increasingly absent. It was thought that boys' masculine development was endangered by too much feminine influence, at home with the women and in school where the majority of teachers were women. Organizations, such as the YMCA, promoted sports as part of the proper education of young males.

Athleticism thus became associated in the American consciousness with normal masculinity. Casting his homosexual protagonist as an athlete, Vidal attempts to address by appealing to the cultural equation of athletics, masculinity, and normality.

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