Up front, no sign of mighty dollar

July 20, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- He ascended the incline beneath the Olympic caldron and marched into the stadium shortly before midnight, the crowd of more than 80,000 roaring as he brought forth the stars and stripes.

How fitting that the U.S. team captains chose one of the nation's last true Olympians to carry the flag in last night's opening ceremonies.

And how unfortunate that the moment carried a certain emptiness for Bruce Baumgartner, who lost one of his closest friends because the surge of commercialism at the Games hasn't trickled down to his sport.

Baumgartner, representing the last of 197 countries, circled the track slowly, clutching the flag with two hands, then one. He looked almost serenely calm, this humble man with the size-54 jacket from Haledon, N.J.

His president cheered, patriotic music blared, the whole world watched. It would all have been so perfect, if only Baumgartner could have looked behind and seen Dave Schultz.

Alas, Schultz's memory is all that remains.

If wrestling had better funding, Schultz would not have needed to train on the 800-acre estate of one of the sport's few benefactors, John E. du Pont.

If wrestling had better funding, Schultz wouldn't have been so beholden to a man who descended into madness, then shot him dead six months ago.

"I walked into the Coliseum in L.A. with Dave at our first Olympics," Baumgartner said yesterday before the ceremonies. "I don't know exactly what I'll be thinking at the time when I come into the stadium.

"I know in my training, my preparation, just about every day Dave is in my thoughts, as are [Schultz's wife] Nancy and his family. . . . He'll always be in my memory."

Baumgartner, 35, is a super heavyweight seeking to become the first American freestyle wrestler to win three gold medals. Schultz, 36, also was expected to be in Atlanta, trying to duplicate his gold-medal performance from '84.

He lived with his wife and two children at the Foxcatcher National Training Center on du Pont's estate in Newtown Square, Pa. Baumgartner also had a relationship with du Pont in his early days. Almost all the wrestlers did.

These are athletes who can't rely on Reebok or Nike to prolong their careers; they've got to make their way in the real world. Baumgartner is the wrestling coach at Edinboro (Pa.) University. A glamorous life it is not.

He lives with his wife, Linda, and two sons, in a secluded farmhouse in northwestern Pennsylvania -- a world away from Los Angeles, where Olympic teammate Shaquille O'Neal now can search for real estate with $120 million to burn.

"When I first started wrestling in the 1984 Olympics, there was no commercialism. Very few people got paid. Very few people got big contracts to wear shoes," Baumgartner said.

"I would consider myself more of an old-school amateur Olympian than some of the younger Olympians. I don't go out of my way to do it. But I'm proud of the way I live. I'm proud of the way I compete."

So, no doubt, was Schultz, but his reliance on du Pont cost him his life. Du Pont contributed $500,000 a year to wrestling, and also sponsored biathletes, pentathletes and swimmers. He even taught Dave Gostigian, the lone U.S. modern pentathlete, how to shoot.

Dr. Leroy Walker, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, spoke yesterday of the need to accommodate corporate sponsors who help make the Games viable. The same logic often applies to individual patrons like du Pont.

Never mind that he grew more eccentric as the years passed -- few questions were asked; the money kept coming. Schultz apparently thought he could handle du Pont's changing personality. But in the end, a sport was left reeling.

"We'll have to deal with it for years to come," Baumgartner said. "Dave was set to be one of our greatest coaches. We have other coaches coming up. Wrestling is a great sport, a resilient sport. ,, Nancy is trying to do some things to bring it up to another level. But the bottom line is, none of it is worth a person's life."

Perhaps the only good to come of this will be the renewed appreciation for true amateurs like Baumgartner and the odds they overcome to reach their goals. Baumgartner told Schultz after the '84 Olympics that he'd compete two more years. Twelve years later, he's still going.

Only four other Americans have earned medals in four Olympics, and Baumgartner is again favored to win gold. He's the perfect Olympic hero, a 286-pound gentle giant once described by his wife as "the shyest man I ever met."

Baumgartner smiled when a reporter asked him about that quote yesterday. "When she met me, I was the shyest man she ever met," he said, as if to correct a misperception. "That might have been true. I was pretty shy."

He's a throwback, "the embodiment of an embodiment," as one USOC official put it. He credits his work ethic to his father, who spent 40 years as a diesel mechanic for a bus company. He lectures kids on the importance of work, education and staying away from drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

He's one of the last true Olympians.

A man deserving of last night's honor.

"I can't even really dream or imagine it," Baumgartner said. "I realized how big the Olympics were in 1984 when I went into the Coliseum. Just to hear the people screaming, the noise, the cheering for the U.S. . . .

"To be able to carry the flag, walking in again for the United States of America, it's going to be the highlight of my sporting career. It will be something I'll never forget."

How fitting that he carried the flag.

L How unfortunate that Dave Schultz couldn't share the moment.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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