ON Monday afternoon, heavyweight wrestler Bruce Baumgartner alternately shoveled down lunch at Disney-MGM Studios and fielded questions about his sport and his long and illustrious career in it.
The press luncheon was in honor of the 10 nominees for the annual Sullivan Award, which the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) presents to the top amateur athlete in the United States.
That night, in a surprise to him and presumably many other banquet guests, Baumgartner was awarded the Sullivan trophy. The other contenders were basketball players Rebecca Lobo and Lorenzen Wright; gymnasts Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu; sprinters Michael Johnson and Gwen Torrence; cyclist Rebecca Twigg; football player Tommie Frazier; and golfer Eldrick (Tiger) Woods.
Hours before the presentation, Baumgarter had said that, in his view, there really were no palatable professional options for wrestlers anyway. What passes for professional wrestling - the comical good guy-vs.-bad guy theatrics seen on television - would require a distasteful compromise of athletic integrity.
"I just can't see myself being asked to lose," Baumgartner said, adding that he doesn't believe pro wrestlers "have either the physical skills or the temperament to survive in a purely athletic arena."
In his 16 years as an international competitor, Baumgartner cannot recall ever losing his temper.
A wrestler doesn't have to be mean, he says. Rather, he must be "focused and intense" as well as superbly conditioned.
The demands that wrestling place on the entire body can be compared to gymnastics, he says, except that in wrestling you are "performing against the intangible of another person, an opponent who for eight minutes is reacting to you, pulling at you, trying to get you down."
To Baumgartner, it's a fascinating strategic struggle, one that he has pursued and excelled at far longer than most of his chief competitors. "I went through some Russian rivals and some Turkish rivals," he says.
He never dreamed his career would bring him to the brink of the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, he says.
The first entries in his resume were written as a collegian at Indiana State University, basketball star Larry Bird's alma mater. After Bird left, Baumgartner became a three-time All-American and won the national heavyweight title as a senior in 1982. In 1984 he won a gold at the Los Angeles Olympics, the first US wrestler to do so. He won a silver in Seoul four years later and another gold in Barcelona in 1992. Last year he captured his 16th national title and won the gold medal at the World Freestyle Wrestling Championships.
Such excellence has not gone unacknowledged. This was the fifth time Baumgartner was among the 10 finalists for the Sullivan Award, named for James E. Sullivan, a pioneer in amateur sports and founder of the AAU in 1888. Only three athletes were finalists more times than he: Weightlifter Tommy Kono was listed eight times, and divers Greg Louganis and Patricia McCormick were six-time finalists who, like Baumgartner, eventually became recipients.
Baumgartner, a native of Cambridge Springs, Pa., says he naively thought he might win in 1986, his first year as a candidate. Since then he's concluded that wrestlers lead a back-of-the-bus existence when it comes to public recognition. Only one other wrestler, John Smith in 1990, has ever won the Sullivan, which dates to 1930.
Baumgartner says the pinnacle in his sport is an Olympic gold medal, because it is an individual accomplishment. Awards are subjective calls.
"I felt, in the five years I was nominated for the Sullivan Award, that I was as qualified as the recipients," he says, "but I did not feel slighted because all the others [in contention] were great athletes."
History shows that the Sullivan deck has been stacked toward track-and-field athletes, probably because their sport is an Olympic centerpiece and long was associated with amateur competition. For years, though, there has been no pretense at amateurism in track and field. Michael Johnson, the first man to win the 200- and 400-meter races in world or Olympic competition, readily agrees:
"As far as track and field is concerned, it's not hard to tell where the line is," he says. "There is no line. It is a straight-up, 100 percent professional sport. I have absolutely no idea why we are still included [in Sullivan deliberations]."
Bobby Dodd, president of the AAU, says the union defers to the individual sports' governing bodies to determine the difference between amateurs and pros, a line that seems hardly to exist anymore. The Olympics, for example, have gone heavily toward "open" competition, even to the point of including multimillionaire National Basketball Association stars.
Dodd grants that many cases can be argued either way. Amateurism is a matter of the heart, he says, and Baumgartner "is definitely what an amateur athlete is."
"Of the Olympic sports I know of," Baumgartner says, "wrestling is the most amateur - in other words, the poorest."
Top wrestlers get training stipends from USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body, and Baumgartner is also sponsored by the New York Athletic Club, which pays expenses. There is no appearance money or prize money for wrestlers, however, so Baumgartner works as the head wrestling coach at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.