By Gare Joyce | Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
By Gare Joyce | Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
A new biographical play sheds fresh light on the life and legacy of Olympic boxer and gay icon Mark Leduc

The billing outside the theatre will be simplicity itself: Leduc. The storyline and its conflict will be hinted at on the cover of the program: “A Public Life of Solitude.” When the house lights dim, the actor will step on the stage alone, the titular character in a one-man play. In act one, the set will be bare but for a mirror. In the second act, it will evoke a boxing ring. In act three, the mirror once again. The production will be basic and minimal but the story told and themes visited over the course of 90 minutes sweep massively. In order they are trauma, crime, punishment, redemption, victory, hardship, secrecy, transparency, and in the end, an uneasy peace and rest.

At a glance, Mark Leduc might seem like an unlikely candidate to have his life story staged. His name might not even be familiar. His greatest fame came in the boxing ring almost 30 years ago and it was momentary, really. He was just one on the roll of athletes who got their 15 minutes of fame across the course of the 1992 Summer Olympics: scoring four consecutive wins in the light welterweight division (140 pounds), and first attracting real attention when he won a one-sided decision over an Algerian fighter in the quarter-final — with two bronze medals awarded in each weight class, that victory guaranteed him a place on the podium. The last time his name was much discussed was in 2009 when he died of heat stroke in a Toronto sauna at the age of 47.

Based on this thumbnail, the full biographical treatment might seem like a stretch, but Leduc is best remembered today for what he did after his boxing career: He made public the fact that he was gay. It might not seem like front-page news for public figures to discuss their sexuality today, but in the late ’90s it amounted to a revelation, somewhat because he was an Olympic medal-winning athlete, more than somewhat because his milieu, the boxing ring, was supposed to be the ultimate macho enclave.

Any journalist, biographer or playwright who came in cold to write Leduc’s story would rely on reporting and a healthy bit of imagination. If Mark Leduc had tried to tell it himself, questions would be asked about what he chose to leave out, the whole matter of selectivity, the subject often making the most unreliable narrator. But Leduc the play is a life remembered by Raymond Helkio, who did not just know Leduc but knew him as his partner, who was there for the highest points and the toughest times — and of the latter there were many.

A playwright and filmmaker in Toronto, Helkio believes that Leduc will not only capture the story of its title character but, by his example, also provide teachable lessons. “I hope the audience will come out of the play better understanding that you can come from really hard, really terrible situations and change that completely, turning your life all around, like Mark did,” Helkio says. “I also hope the people who’ll see the play will acknowledging that our heroes — those we put on a pedestal — may or may not want to be there, may not be fully prepared for it. That was the case with Mark.”

Leduc was not an Olympic boxer, not a famous name, when Helkio met him in 1988 at Komrades, a gay bar on Church Street in a Toronto. With his short, ginger-blonde hair and unstubbled, pug-nosed mien, Leduc might have been mistaken for a boy scout. When Helkio found out that Leduc boxed, he took nothing away from that fact. “I was never interested in sports at all,” Helkio says. “He told me that he was disappointed that he had missed out on going to Seoul [the Olympic Games that year].”

There was no path to the Olympic boxing team in ’88 for Leduc because he had spent several years behind bars in the run-up to the qualifying. He had been a young, not-particularly savvy thief. Who depends on a subway for a getaway? Who does that without having the fare to get through the turnstiles? Who, when wanted for a series of break-ins and thefts, goes into a police station to report that his bike was stolen? The arc of his career as a criminal would pass for humour if it hadn’t exacted such a heavy price: He was convicted of the armed robbery of a jewelry store and sentenced to six-and-a-half years at Collins Bay, a medium-security prison near Kingston, Ont.

Says Helkio: “If Mark were here, he would absolutely attest that if you want to make anybody a terrible person, put them in prison. No matter how bad they are, they’re going to be worse when they come out. To me, it’s a miracle that he went as far as he did because he had been a bad kid when he went to prison.”

“He really found purpose in boxing in prison. His view was, ‘Hey, this will keep me off the street.’”

Growing up in Toronto’s east end, dropping out of Danforth Technical School at 15, Leduc had spent time in the gym and had a few amateur fights before he was sent away but it was only at Collins Bay that he pursued boxing seriously. It was less an interest than a strategy for survival. “He wanted to avoid trouble any way he could,” Helkio says. “He knew he was either going to have to fight to claim space there and get in trouble, or he could box, which kept him out of trouble. He just discovered people stayed away from him and he earned all this respect because of boxing. And he loved the sport. He really found purpose in boxing in prison. He decided, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ His view was, ‘Hey, this will keep me off the street.’”

Because he kept his sheet clean, read the Bible and worked, Leduc earned special privileges, among them extra time in the gym and trips out of Collins Bay for tournaments, where he’d wear handcuffs until it came time in the dressing room to don gloves, watched by an armed guard. His successes in the ring doubtlessly played a role in Leduc winning early release, paroled after serving about half his sentence. “From his perspective, in prison boxing saved his life,” Helkio says and this was surely the case in the years back out on the street as well. Boxing gave Leduc a direction, an outlet for his aggression, a sense of accomplishment and, with the Olympics in Barcelona, a goal — albeit one four years off. He’d be 30 in 1992, an advanced age for amateur boxers. It wasn’t a case of getting a late start — he’d had those few amateur fights as a teenager — so much as a delayed opportunity to take on nationally and internationally ranked fighters.

For Leduc, the Olympics were not a means to an end but rather the goal in full. That commitment required him to take on the hardships endured by many amateur athletes who are less than household names. And with the challenges he faced finding jobs with a criminal record, his situation could scarcely have been worse if he’d taken a vow of poverty. “The money Mark received from [Boxing Canada] was around the welfare line,” Helkio says.

In the years before Olympic qualifying, Mark’s sexual orientation was widely known in the gym but not discussed by other boxers, trainers and coaches. “The others were very supportive,” Helkio says.

He won the respect of all habitués in what you’d presume to be the most macho of sports cultures and he carried himself in the gym like he had in Collins Bay: not drawing attention to himself, minding his own business, careful not to offend or make waves. He had no interest in being “the gay boxer,” no interest in serving as a spokesman for a cause. “There was so much attention then given to HIV and the gay community, so much fear,” Helkio says. “This was only a few years after [U.S. diver] Greg Louganis hit his head and was bleeding in the pool at the Olympics. [Louganis had been diagnosed as HIV positive before the Games, but didn’t go public with his sexuality and condition until 1995.] Mark didn’t want to give [boxing officials] a reason or an excuse to overlook him.”

In the gym, he was just one of those working for a spot in the Olympic tournament. “Mark’s philosophy was pretty simple: ‘Get to know me first and then I’ll give you all the other information you need,’” Helkio says. “It’s so terrible that he had to hide it [from Olympic officials] and he wouldn’t go public [about his sexuality] before Barcelona because it would have attracted too much attention to the team. The other boxers understood all this and thought enough of Mark to vote him the captain of the team.”

Through his first two fights in Barcelona, decisive wins over a Ugandan opponent and then a Guyanese boxer, Leduc’s progress wasn’t big news in Canada. Helkio was on the phone with his partner on a daily basis and knew Leduc was facing challenges that four years of training could not have prepared him for: a ruptured tendon in his right shoulder, an abscessed insect bite and a high fever from an infection after time in the locker-room whirlpool. Physicians had pumped him with shots of antibiotics but they didn’t provide anything like an instant fix. “He was basically boxing with one arm,” Helkio says.

Before the tournament, Leduc had been preoccupied with the draw and he caught a break before he even stepped in the ring: He landed on the other side of the bracket from Cuba’s Hector Vinent, who had won the world junior championship a couple of years before and was widely considered the sport’s emerging star across all weight classes. Still his luck seemed to run out in the semifinal, where he was matched against Leonard Dorin Doroftei, a Romanian who had thoroughly dominated his first three opponents. None had a solution for his buzzsaw pace — if they were still breathing, he was throwing combinations.

Against Dorin, Leduc eschewed his usual counter-punching style and became the aggressor. It proved to be the perfect strategy, putting the aggressive Romanian back on his heels and out of his comfort zone. Leduc’s victory over Dorin was his most impressive performance and would turn out to be the last great moment of his boxing career. Yet it proved even more impressive over time. After winning another bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in ’96, Dorin turned professional and, fighting out of Montreal, won a world lightweight title, never losing a fight in the 135-pound division. Fighting one-handed, Leduc scored a win over a future world champion in the professional ranks.

“All of his years in prison. All of these people saying, ‘you're nothing’ and ‘you're no good’ and ‘you're a terrible person’ — he was always living down that prison sentence.”

Vinent proved to be a class above but Leduc gave the Cuban his toughest fight in Barcelona. Again, Leduc’s performance in the final is more impressive in hindsight: Vinent would add two world amateur championships and a second Olympic gold in Atlanta, along the way defeating future Hall of Famer Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas, who as a pro would win two light middleweight titles. In fact, with two Olympic golds by age 24, Vinent seemed destined to have one of the greatest careers in the history of amateur boxing until he was forced to retire in 2000 due to an eye injury.

With his silver medal, Leduc was an unlikely Canadian Olympic hero: one who not only came to his moment under the public radar but also realized his success in the face of doubters. “Watching him when he got up on the podium, he was doing everything in his power not to bawl,” Helkio says. “All of his years in prison. All of these people saying, ‘you’re nothing’ and ‘you’re no good’ and ‘you’re a terrible person’ — he was always living down that prison sentence. And so to be standing there and to be a Canadian who has won this. And how he won this. He knew it was on sheer determination. There was skill, but for him the way you win is you don’t quit.”

Maybe others imagined that Leduc would be on a safe and secure track, but he didn’t. Many presume Olympic glory is a life-changing watershed but really he had already turned his life around before Barcelona.

We really only give passing thought to the afterlife of our sports heroes and the “we” there often includes the heroes themselves. When years go into building toward a single goal, disappointment or disillusionment in its wake are no more surprising than a hangover after a binge. Boxing in Barcelona had defined Mark Leduc and he hadn’t really looked hard and considered deeply what would lie out there beyond the Games. When he spoke to reporters at the Olympics, he had talked vaguely about his plan “to go back to school and get a life,” basically disappearing into what those at Collins Bay would call ‘The Free World.’ There wouldn’t be much of a second act and certainly no third in Helkio’s play if Leduc’s story ended with him standing on the podium or simply fading away.

Despite his brave efforts in the spotlight, Leduc found that his rewards extended not much further than the silver medal itself. He could put it on display but do little else with it. Commercial opportunities were all but nonexistent. When business interests went shopping for heroes to sell soap in commercials, they passed over Leduc for others on the Olympic team, like rower Silken Laumann or swimmer Mark Tewksbury. History shows corporations have always been reluctant to associate themselves too closely with boxing because some who buy soap and shop at the supermarket find the sport distasteful. This had to have been even more true for a boxer with a criminal record. “Those companies were looking for someone who was milk-and-cookies wholesome,” Helkio says.

Leduc attempted a reinvention by playing a role expected of Olympic heroes, but despite his best efforts, he was ill-suited. “In retirement, Mark owned the fact that he was held up on a pedestal and did everything he could with it,” Helkio says. “He had his story to tell, how he had overcome his troubles. He toured schools and would lend his voice when people asked or do the charity work. It was a challenge for him because he was a very private person. He didn’t really want the responsibility of having to be a role model, having to act this way or that way.”

Though he’d had no plans to go back to the gym for more than a workout, Leduc wound up signing for a handful of professional fights, winning four, losing one by decision. He wasn’t exactly trying to cash in on his silver medal so much as put food on the table. “The public doesn’t understand that a hero isn’t making any money off being the hero,” Helkio says. “[After the Olympics] we were more poor than we had ever been. I know he wanted to [fight professionally] just to prove he could do it to those who said he couldn’t but it was far less rewarding. One fight all he came away with was a used BMW, which was nice but you can’t eat a BMW.”

Out of the ring and years later, Leduc found work as a laborer on the sets of television and film productions and set about moving up in the union. According to Helkio and others who spoke off the record, Leduc thrived in the environment — every new shoot was an exercise in team-building. Like in the gym in his boxing days, his sexual orientation was at once an open secret and nothing that really merited talking about on the set. With that level of comfort and a steady income, he could have easily have spent the rest of his life on the job and faded from view.

“I'd say the coming out, ultimately, even though it was challenging, probably served him, served his heart, in a much better way than a medal ever could.”

In 1999, though, Leduc returned to the spotlight and achieved a level of fame that outstripped his boxing career when he came out. It wasn’t the first time that he had spoken about his sexuality — a few years before he had talked to a sports reporter from CBC Radio about the challenges faced by gay athletes but when the interview aired, he was introduced anonymously and his voice was electronically altered. In 1999, however, he came out publicly. He led the Toronto Pride Parade that year, still with unease at being the centre of attention, but also with a sense of relief and of duty. “Winning the silver medal was one of the most important things of Mark’s life,” Helkio says, “but he used to say all the time that coming out mattered more to him because of the impact and the control that he had. I always thought that, for me, that was a beautiful thing because the medal did matter, but being able to change lives mattered more. Every gay kid who looked up to him, every street kid who looked up to him … that meant so much to know his life mattered to them. I’d say the coming out, ultimately, even though it was challenging, probably served him, served his heart, in a much better way than a medal ever could.”

Leduc and Helkio broke off their relationship a few years later and Leduc entered into another. He found that being a gay icon didn’t really pay any better than being the boxing hero of a moment that quickly passes. “We can put you on our Pride parade,” Helkio says. “We can put you on the cover of a magazine. And after, he’s not really of interest to us anymore. There were some nasty articles about him. It’s easy to say we shoot people down, but I think it’s more important to recognize that we’re all broken.”

Helkio will push back if any critics label Leduc a ‘gay play.’ “The only reason it might seem like it is because I wrote it to be staged in the cabaret space at Buddies [Buddies in Bad Times, a downtown Toronto theatre dedicated to LGBTQ-themed productions]. It’s not a play about boxing or sports either. It’s play about a guy who went to the Olympics and became a hero, first by what he did in the ring and then, even more meaningfully, by coming out.”

When it is finally produced, Leduc will be a fascinating character study: an athlete and public figure whose life was not fully known when he stood on the podium in Barcelona and not fully understood when he re-entered the spotlight to openly talk about his sexuality. Some plays and films in this genre lay claim to their importance and verisimilitude by claiming to be “ripped from the headlines.” The headlines told nothing at all, really, about Mark Leduc’s life, though. This play will be a far more knowing, far more intimate portrayal of a man whose troubles and triumphs and the full arc of his life are the stuff that we can only imagine and never fully understand. There would be no imagining it at all without Leduc.

Photo Credits

Illustrations by Kagan McLeod.