(This story was published in 2003).
By: Matt Kane
Weezing, dripping with sweat, and subtly hobbling off a bruised shin, an Australian artist named Tracy Moffat suddenly became the only thing I could think about. Moffat produces constructed or altered photos that make witty little comments on human nature and media and stories and all sorts of topics useful for urbane dinner conversation.
As I stepped out of the Anne Clark Centre gym and into the unforgiving Australian sun, this series of images she created started flashing within my head. Every time my foot hit the ground, a new one slid into place. My own mental view-master. They are a series of stills taken from TV feeds of the 2000 Olympic games of the moment when event results are shown. Against a black and white background, they highlight in bright color the people who came in fourth. Those one step away from the podium, one step away from a medal, one step from recognition. Mouths agape, brows furrowed, and hands covering faces, this is the moment where they brand themselves failures. Through each of these athletes' minds begin to pound phrases beginning with "If I had only....". As I made my way back to the Lidcombe train station, my own thoughts echoed this sentiment.
I was at the 2002 Gay Games, and for the first time since I had arrived, I wasn’t having a good day. Around the end of 2001 and fresh out of college, I begun to practice martial arts again (Tae Kwon Do) after an eight-year hiatus spent doing term papers and keg stands. Though I was just barely getting back into shape, the Gay Games seemed like a great idea. I liked my sport, I liked hot gay athletes, and I liked the fact that it was in Australia. As a closet zoology geek, the idea of spending time in a city populated by giant bats was just too cool to pass up. I convinced myself, wiped out my savings on a decent package deal, and a year later there I was. The sole martial artist and youngest member of Team DC.
The first week in Sydney was spent more or less on my own, and it was incredible. So much to see, and taste, and photograph. Every morning I woke up more charged and confident than the day before. Finally, one night after an amazing afternoon hike along the coastal cliffs, it struck me that I had actually come to Sydney to compete, and that the competing was taking place the next day. Now I was nervous. That very night my nose started running and a familiar tickle hit the back of my throat. Now I was panicked. The previous day I had returned to the hotel to find one of my roommates asleep at 3 o’clock, a pile of snotty tissues lying next to the bed. He was sick as a dog, and it seemed I was on my way there as well. Naturally the bug waited until the day before I had to compete to spring up. Fate can be quite a bitch.
Sure enough, I woke up the next morning barely able to breathe, but the stockpile of confidence built up over the last few days kept me from backing out. I had come to fight, and I knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try. After medicating as well as I could, I set off for the Anne Clarke center in Lidcombe where the martial arts events were being held. Upon arrival I was struck by how closely it resembled the gyms from my high school days. Right down to the badly painted cinderblock walls.
Learning the Rules
The locker room was packed with people silently changing into uniform or polishing weapons. In the bleachers, spectators were just beginning to fill in as the competitors milled about the open areas running through routines, shadow boxing, and stretching out. I was struggling to remember all the rules I’d have to adhere to in the matches. Coming from a school that tended to be quite lax in terms of what you could and could not do, some of these new regulations seemed like painful limitations. My biggest groan came after hearing that all contact during sparring had to happen below the neck. My style was heavy on the kicks and high/low combos, and I loved tapping my opponent’s head. You could throw and block blows in that direction, but not make actual contact. A target area you couldn't touch. The concept seemed ridiculous. More than a warning could get you disqualified from a match, so my control would have to be flawless.
Fighters would enter a square ring with a judge stationed at each corner and the ref keeping an eye from the inside. Don’t hit too hard, or you’ll get called for excessive force. Don’t hit too fast, or the judges might not see it. Don’t hit the head or draw blood, or you’ll get booted from the competition. No sweeps, no grabs, no knockdowns. Only the chest was fair game. Three minutes per match. I'd need to adapt fast. These apparently standard rules made the competition seem neutered. I ran over this temporary new mantra as I separated my gear and tried to relax my labored breathing. The folks around me seemed to be in much better spirits
A cluster of blondes, the shortest around 6 feet tall, stood around adjusting their uniforms proudly and laughing lightly. I didn't recognize the language, but their stature suggested German. They were tall and imposing, yet seemed very lighthearted about the whole production going on around them. Just enjoying the atmosphere I suppose. Two Swedish-sounding men were helping each other stretch on a patch of floor in the corner. They snuck in a few quick pecks on the lips while changing positions. As crummy and nervous as I felt at the time, this did manage to produce a slight grin on my face. This would never happen in my dojo, and suddenly the Gay Games made a bit more sense. Besides, it was just so damn adorable.
Enter the Circuit Boys
It was around this time that they walked in. A group of Australian circuit-boy types sauntered into the gym, oozing so much attitude they practically had a soundtrack. All in matching black Kung Fu togs and well-coifed hair, they took their intimidating selves to the bleachers gathered in a large herd. I was too far away to clearly hear what they were sniggering about, but they appeared to be making disparaging remarks about the other competitors.
Years of pouring over film theory and criticism had trained me to recognize cinematic structures in other areas of pop culture and sometimes my own life. Now the glaring cliche of the situation and fever made me a tad loopy. I was stuck in a bad Karate school flick from the ‘80s. Unfortunately in this movie, Ralph Macchio had a bad cold. In fact any one of the other competitors could have been Ralph Macchio. What if I was actually nothing more than, “GASP”, an extra?! Regardless of what role I was in, it felt as though the evil Kung Fu fags in black were now my clear adversaries.
As I sat there watching people going through forms and beginning to spar, confidence slowly dripped away along with what strength I had mustered to get me there. It seemed as though there were too many things working against me, including my own head. Somewhere I had to find something to grab onto, to fire up the spark I relied on to keep me on my toes in a match. I grabbed my knee to stop my foot from shaking and wiped the sweat off my brow. My nose was stuffed and my throat hurt, but at that point I could hardly notice it. I was too focused on the idea of getting my ass handed to me the very first match I fought in.
There were only nine people in my division, but they all looked peaceful and alert, making me simply more uncertain and envious. Where had all the decisive will and confidence gone? Seemingly stripped of all the qualities that had made me Adventure Lad for the previous few days, I was left a quivering snotty mess strapped into black foam rubber. So out of it I didn’t even notice the first time they called my name. The happy gray-haired American who would serve as our referee repeated himself more loudly, causing me to jump straight up out of my seat. Ignoring a few giggles from the sidelines, I made my way into the ring, coughing quietly into my glove.
Sports films always have a montage somewhere along the story that shows all the competitors winning and losing, usually set to some sort of monster ballad or bad techno. The purpose of this gimmick is to explain the elimination of non-vital characters, and to quickly advance the story to its climatic grudge match. This was just the second match of my division and I was about to go down in a freaking montage sequence. Every time I remembered this moment, AC/DC would blare as I saw my opponent’s arm raised up in victory by the referee.
The German and I
The happy American judge called out a German sounding name and one of the 6-foot blondes put in his mouth guard and sauntered into the ring. We bowed deeply, and as I raised my head, I became very suddenly aware of all the eyes focused upon us. Trying desperately to remember how to raise my arms, I stepped into a fighting stance and hopped back a short distance. The tall Aryan opponent stared down me with wild eyes, his fists shaking with … with what?
He skipped forward awkwardly and threw a shaky single punch toward my guard. I instinctively dodged left and watched as he slowly recoiled his arm into a wide awkward stance. A drop of sweat slid off his eyebrow onto the mat. One punch and he's sweating? Just how thick is that uniform of his? He blinked three times in quick succession, his fists still twitching. And for the first time since I had set foot in that gym, a smile crept across my face. He was scared, and hot damn, now I wasn’t. The crowd vanished. The monster ballad stopped playing. Even the stuffed nose seemed clearer. I could win this. My training was back and running through my head at a brisk pace.
His hands are shaking. He’s telegraphing. Right-handed. He must be right footed. Dodge left. Great, he’s slower with this leg. Keep him moving. Keep his left side in front. Let him throw something, then whip out a hit. Need to make my first move quick. Make it pretty. Make it stick. Scare him a little. His foot’s shaking. Lifting with the toes forward. It’ll be a snap kick towards my gut. Here it comes. Don’t think, just SPIN.
And so I spun and landed a high reverse side kick that very visibly rubbed across his chest. The referee yelled out. “CALL!!” His hand waved above my head signaling a point to me. Two other judges raised their red flags. “POINT RED!” I was winning. The German winced as though he smelled something foul and I took a deep breath. I was better and I was not going to lose.
So the match continued, both of us dancing around each other, his moves just a few beats slower than my own. This was where I needed to be. It was familiar and comfortable. My thoughts glided smoothly as I planned out my moves. At this point in the match I could have easily been content to play a defensive game and wait out the clock. My nervous opponent was playing it safe, keeping enough distance to prevent further points on either side. When three minutes had passed, would win. But something inside me had been switched on. It was more than just simple concentration. My spark was burning.
When I normally walk into a gay bar, I generally take part (at least to some degree) in the usual routine of whirling insecurities, lust, and carefully choreographed self-presentation. We boys know how hard we’re being watched because of how critically we ourselves watch others. As we get more observant, we get more conscious of being the object of another’s gaze. The careful steps, the search for vantage points, the useless worrying over how our strands of hair are arranged. It can be absolutely maddening.
But every once in a great while I’ll walk into a bar or club and something wonderful will happen. I just won’t give a shit. Suddenly I won’t picture myself from other’s eyes or even care what they may or may not think of me. My favorite songs will play in my head. I’ll visibly relax, and sometimes I’ll even start to strut. I'll feel strong and intelligent. Almost predatory but playful at the same time. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, I felt like having some fun in that ring. I felt predatory, I felt playful, and if my opponent wasn’t going to bring me a good fight, then I’d just have to scare it out of him.
All right, lets maneuver left a little. Give him some kicks to block. Line up with that back corner to give myself some hopping room when he charges. Throw one more high kick. He’s getting agitated. Drop your guard. Give him a target. His hands are shaking. He’s tensing up. About to come at me. Needs a fast kick with a far reach. It’ll be a front kick. No height though. He’ll go for my chest. Ah, snap, he’s taking the bait. Hop back. Missed me.
I stood a few feet away with my chest and face wide open, rocking back and forth lightly on the balls of my feet. Feeling charged and crafty, this was practically flirtation.
Drop your guard again. C’mon dude, look how open I am. Looks so easy, doesn’t it? Lets give him a little scare. He’s moving. Bring up your leg. Turn your hips. Point your heel at his face. He’s wavering. Jumped back. Now don’t drop the leg. Just freeze.
I stood there like a flamingo, one leg cocked back like a slingshot aimed right at his head. I didn’t move a muscle. The German didn’t seem to know what to do as he stepped forward and back again. His eyes widened in anticipation while I calmly stood there. As he began to circle left and right my foot followed, never losing its mark. Like an animal trainer disciplining a tiger. Now it was time to really make him sweat. I hopped forward on one leg, no more than a foot and a half, but fast and without shaking.
He hopped as well, his guard dropping absent-mindedly as he kept waiting for me to throw my kick. I had learned this trick from another student at my dojo. It was a position that seemed awkward when watched from afar, but was one of the most effective and obnoxious things one can do to an opponent. They’re just standing there on one leg. Basically showing off, taking a break, and mocking your lack of skills at the same time. To get through you have to be even quicker than the opponent’s leg, but when that leg starts off from a high kicking position, it has the advantage. I had shown my opponent that he was almost assuredly not faster than my leg, and he smartly wanted to keep his distance. Well, that’s no fun, I thought, this is playtime. Hopping right at him several more times sent him scurrying to the opposite corner. So quickly that he nearly stepped out of the ring. His arms went out to catch his balance while he peeked over his shoulder to quickly double-check the boundaries. That was all I needed.
Put down the leg. Skip forward. Straight punch. Tag. You’re it.
Flags went up and I was at 2 to zip. A few competitors on the sidelines sniggered, perhaps having used the move once or twice themselves. The little bit of cockiness got bigger. I knew I had won, but I wanted one more point much the same way J-Lo will always want one more fur coat. Just because. I had been working out a tricky little kick at the hotel gym earlier that week, and it seemed as good a time as any to show it off. The German seemed to have calmed down. There were only about 30 seconds left, and I had two points he didn’t. By now he had either resigned to losing the match or found his own bit of inner peace with which to take me out. I didn’t want him calm though. To be on the safe side, I needed him shook up. And I knew the best way to do it.
We both stood in stance, guards at the ready. I let my legs loosen a little with a couple quick-footed slides back and forth and stopped in front of him. Motions I had never learned at the dojo, but had worked out at raves back in college while dancing until dawn. My knees dropped slowly, feet turned aside, and eyes locked. I popped up and went air-born, spinning left and throwing out my leg into a high arch easily going over his head. He was ready. I had telegraphed it, just as I had practiced.
Take off. Up we go. Throw the leg. High over him. His hands are up covering his helmet. Good. I’m not the only one used to going for the head. Dropping. Left foot touches ground. Start to bring the right. Watch your balance. Thinks I’m done. Now push the right foot back up before it touches ground. He’s still guarding high. Too easy. Wham. Gotcha. Right in the chest. Damn, his uniform is sweaty. My foot’s all wet. Cool, there go the flags. Sorry dude. Point three for me.
The referee bowed us in to finish the last few seconds of the match. We limply put up our guards, not even bothering to move our feet at this point. “Time!” The ref grabbed my glove and raised it high into the air. “Red is the winner!”
The crowd applauded for a very civil five seconds as I took back my seat in the back corner. The German had removed his helmet and wiped away sweat as he hustled over to his compatriots who gave him a few consoling pats on his back. He sat down with a calm grin on his face and shrugged. Regardless of what had happened over the last three minutes it seemed he was having a good time.
Wasting My Energy
I wasn’t in such good spirits though. The win was exciting, but unsatisfying. I had let myself get carried away against an opponent not in my league. It had been a waste of energy going for more points than I needed, and left me a dizzy sweat factory who now felt pretty silly. Unfortunately that wasn’t the only mistake I had made. I had effectively won the battle and lost the war. Nerves had kept me from paying close attention to the first match, but the winner of that match had no problem keeping a sharp eye on mine.
Time buzzed by as others won and lost matches, and I just dripped on the floor. My body felt lighter. Things seemed quieter. So quiet in fact that the referee had to again call my name twice to get me to the mat. Looking up as I strapped on my helmet, I got a load of my opponent. One of the evil Kung Fu fags stood waiting in the ring, his friends cheering him on from the sidelines. I jogged over as the ref chuckled lightly. “Thanks for joining us.” We bowed in and took our stances. The ref’s hand dropped and away we went. My opponent wasted no time. He threw a quick kick at my head and two punches that I barely blocked. I slipped right and bought up my leg for a kick that he swiftly blocked out with a kick of his own, catching me dead center in the shin.
OWWWW!!! FUCK that hurt. C’mon focus. Duck right. Hop back. Hop back. Kick him away. Back off dude!
My body mustered enough strength to hurl out some intimidating looking swipes. These at least managed to keep him a respectable distance while I tried to come up with something. Even through my foam leg guard, that blow to my shin left me throbbing with pain. Putting it back onto the ground had made me wince, but now trying to put weight on it just hurt like hell. Whether I liked it or not, this was now my only kicking leg. Before I even had time to change stances to accommodate the injury, my opponent came at me again. I was too scattered to dodge, and could only curl up and block with my gloves as he nimbly hopped from one foot to the other delivering blows on either side of me. With each kick his body had moved closer, until I saw an opening within arms reach.
Block. Block. Closer. Block. Jesus, he’s quick. Block. There. Open shirt. Hit it. Gotcha. Dammit. Got me too.
My connecting punch had left my ribs wide open, and he took the invitation. We nailed each other at the exact same moment. The ref’s hand waved over my head, as one judge raised a red flag signaling my point. Two judges facing my opponent however raised white flags. The fourth judge looked about and stood motionless. “We don’t have confirmation on either side! No point!” My opponent’s black clad cheering section let out a few groans as we took our stances again and I let out an audible grumble of my own. Now I wanted that point back. And so we started dancing. He threw blows and I blocked. I threw and he blocked. Nothing was getting through, and neither wanted to take a chance. The clocked ticked on. His buddies began cheering him on more vocally as I grew more winded. His hits got closer and my dodges got slower. Time was quickly approaching zero. The tables were turning and I was out of ideas.
He’s not even sweating! What the hell! Hope he slips on my sweat puddle. Damn, coming back. I can’t block. Just keep him back. Need a sec to think. Scare him off. Just get your leg up and hold it there.
The leg went up for the flamingo stance, and held steady. He kept moving towards me. This trick was no surprise to him, just an opportunity. He had clearly been paying attention to my match or just didn't scare this easily. I was so taken aback by his charge that I didn’t even think to kick until my opponent was inches away.
One quick punch to my chest and he hopped well out of my leg's reach. The ref signaled to my opponent as three white flags went up. Before I had even lowered my foot back to the ground, the crowd began cheering. "Point White!" I was officially a loser.
I sat out the rest of the matches not feeling much of anything, just staring blankly as my last opponent went on to take the gold. Out of the nine competitors in the division, I was fourth. Just one point away from standing up in front of the crowd and judges to accept recognition. The evil Kung Fu fags had won this war, and looked quite smug about it. In fact they had gone on to take the top prizes in most of the day's divisions. They may have been assholes, but I admired their style and determination. In a different setting, I could have easily become an evil Kung Fu fag myself. Hell, I did want to be one of their gang. To have other fags to spar with and grab a beer after, it seemed like a perfect arrangement. It was quite clear that they were all committed to the sport, so that would have to be enough for me to deal with losing to one of them. And I hated losing.
Walking Away Fourth
I packed up my gear and left during the afternoon forms, figuring a hotel room shower and nap was exactly what I needed to get through the rest of my illness. So I set out, leaving the gym and trudging down the long, sweltering road towards the train station. It was here on this trek that Tracy Moffat's images of fourth-place finishers began to flash one after the other, their expressions beginning to match my own.
If only I hadn’t gotten this fucking cold.
If I'd just kept my tricks to myself that first match.
If I'd only cleared my head a little quicker before that guy could score on me.
"If onlys" came bouncing through in a rhythm matching my trot. Anger at myself started to well up, fevered fury with no real target. A rather expensive sports car suddenly flew up along side me, nearly screeching on the asphalt as it slowed down for a speed bump. A busty young woman sat in the passenger's seat, while in the driver's seat, behind a pair of expensive sunglasses, was my victorious opponent. The car cleared the lump and sped off as if being pursued by law enforcement. My rage had a target, and it was that guy.
Asshole. No way should he have been in our division. Too good for our division. I should've gotten that first point. Judges just liked him cause he's Australian. Bastard. Who drives cars like that? Bastards drive those cars. Rich mutherfuckers. And that girl with him. That bastard! That bastard must be straight! HE'S A DAMN BREEDER!!
At this point every muscle in my body had tensed to the point of near injury. My fists were shaking, and my feet were sweating. The anger and fever were swirling up out of my gut, behind my eyes, over my skin. And all of the "what ifs" vanished, as did all thoughts of the gay Kung Fu kid and his girlfriend. I saw a cartoon version of myself in one of Moffat's photos shaking with anger. It was turning beet red, with jets of steam shooting out of its ears accompanied by the sound of teapot whistle.
It was the funniest damn thing my brain had thought up in days, and suddenly I couldn't stop laughing. So loud that I startled a group of brightly colored sparrows out of a nearby bush and sent them twittering over the parking lot. They flicked in and out of the sun's rays towards a bank of trees off in the distance, my laughter trailing them all the way. Laughter eased into giggling, giggling melted into a sigh.
All the amazing creatures, the evil and fabulous Kung Fu fags, the win, the loss, the stupid cold, the burning sun, the giant bats, the streets, the sex, the sea; it all seemed so ridiculously beautiful as it settled neatly into my head for the first time since I set foot in that country. With a stupid grin plastered on my mug and a favorite song playing in the background, I continued strolling at a relaxed pace. An internal monologue began running as I recalled each event thus far.
Finally arriving at the train station, the last line played through. "And then in my second sparring match in Sydney during the 2002 Gay Games, I lost by one point to one of the evil Kung Fu fags". Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to ever live out a sentence like that. I got exactly what I had come for. A truly memorable experience.
Matt Kane lives in Washington D.C.