The Enduring, Goofy Legacy of American Gladiators

It’s been 30 years since the games in star-spangled spandex became a national phenomenon, changed sports entertainment, and augured a new age of TV.

An American Gladiator fighting a contestant in the Joust competition.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tony Duffy/Allsport via Getty Images and kaarsten/iStock/Getty Images.

So many of the sports that Americans play and watch and draft fantasy teams for today have their roots in the same period of history.

Much about the cultural milieu of the late 19th century led people to create and adopt physical games. Victorian obsessions with self-improvement, Muscular Christianity preaching the spiritual benefits of teamwork and physical fitness, industrialization changing patterns of work and leisure, reforms to education that required distracting large groups of young people—they all added up to a 30ish-year era that was unlike any other in terms of inventing and codifying what we would come to know as modern sports.

Since then, the country’s cultural, political, and economic forces have spurred a constant evolution of these pastimes. The forward pass was introduced. The shot clock was adopted. Television timeouts were implemented. The sports are played a little differently but remain true to their initial idea: physical games played between two groups for the health and enjoyment of the competitors, and often to entertain an audience.

At the turn of the 1990s—nearly a century after James Naismith nailed up a peach basket—those societal forces created something new. Thirty years ago Monday, on Sept. 9, 1989, the first episode of American Gladiators aired, pitting two male and two female contenders against the show’s hired squad of muscle-bound, spandex-clad athletes in a variety of made-for-TV minigames. The program would grow into a national phenomenon (in syndication, no less), familiar enough to make appearances on Ellen and Beavis and Butt-Head, and marketable enough to sell video games, action figures, candy bars, and even its own soundtrack CD.

The competition itself was glorious, sports reimagined for the postmodern age: shorn from history and the complicated morality of fan loyalty, disassembled to their elemental components and reconstructed into some hyperreal, maximalist machine. What if slam dunks plus linebackers? What if sumo wrestling plus pinball? What if rebounding plus Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome? The show’s popular event Assault was a Nintendo boss encounter made flesh. The Wall was as primal and terrifying as a John Carpenter movie. Joust was a macho pillow fight. Every contest was engineered to be quick and violent, like an early Mike Tyson bout, except the contenders sometimes beat the stars. It looked like sports as played in the future.

In many ways American Gladiators was exactly that—and not just because it served as the ur-text for so many other sports-adjacent competition shows that followed. (Nickelodeon Guts and The Titan Games fall right into its familiar groove, and shows like Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior dip into the American Gladiators bag of motifs as they adapt foreign properties for U.S. audiences.) There also remain elements of the show’s original 1989–96 run that the major sports leagues and their television partners are still catching up to.

For starters, American Gladiators put female athletes on national television and into millions of homes every week. That’s still something none of the big leagues have accomplished. Though its presentation of women might leave a lot to be desired by modern standards, at minimum the show provided equal opportunity for its male and female ringers to compete in scanty, impractical outfits.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred might envy American Gladiators’ ability to make stars out of the people wearing those outfits. While baseball has struggled to turn some of its best players into national celebrities, the spandex-fest hired former minor league football players and fitness trainers who couldn’t get acting work and turned them into household names like Nitro and Ice in relatively short order. (Though, granted, like American Gladiators, for a time baseball also created stars out of artificially enhanced muscle bros.) Plus, unlike MLB games, the show’s contests were short and punchy.

In 2011, the NBA (which, unlike MLB, is famous for its plethora of stars) was so worried about becoming a league dominated by a handful of superteams that would sweep aside a series of overmatched contenders on their way to the Finals that the league office vetoed a trade of Chris Paul to the Kobe Bryant–Pau Gasol Los Angeles Lakers. When that future came to pass anyway, the league experienced a period of tremendous growth. It could have predicted that from watching American Gladiators. For years the show proved that people would still enjoy watching Laser (or the Golden State Warriors) suplex a perpetual series of no-hopers.

The NFL, for its part, would kill to have its patriotic bona fides as airtight as the gladiators’ red-white-and-blue leotards were in their day. The show rode the wave of its era’s popular jingoism, when many Americans thought the end of history had really come with the USA winning the Cold War. By contrast, the NFL’s recent displays of American pride—and some of its players’ political protests—have been received much more divisively. The league has been slow to realize that wrapping itself in an American flag doesn’t make it immune to criticism, that the message of players like Colin Kaepernick (who chose the pregame national anthem as the setting for their protest) might be more nuanced than America is bad, that even members of Congress might be upset that the league’s teams took millions of dollars from the Department of Defense and the National Guard to stage tributes to the troops. Aside from fitting neatly into its geopolitical moment, American Gladiators benefited from existing before the wide adoption of the internet, and audiences generally seemed to accept its displays of national pride as campy and noncontroversial. (Though the show’s 2008 reboot—launched in the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency—received some criticisms on these grounds, I was unable to find any contemporary knocks on the original show’s patriotism. If the Army was paying Gemini to wear his sparkly crop top, it hasn’t yet come to light.)

Major League Soccer, meanwhile, spent the first few years after its inauguration in 1996 treating the global game like just another event on a variety show, constantly tweaking the rules to make it more exciting, more accessible, and more American. American Gladiators successfully used television to teach people how to watch and care about games they had never even seen before. It’s not like anyone grew up playing Hang Tough, at least not until the show showed them how and turned every set of schoolyard monkey bars into an aerial war zone.

This was the bet that American Gladiators’ creators and nested rights holders made: that these silly invented contests could be shot and edited in such a way that they would not only make sense to viewers but power the show. Early episodes presented the competition as though it were taking place in an actual gladiatorial arena, complete with anachronistic hooded executioner figures serving as referees. The gimmicks were abandoned after just half a season in favor of treating what was happening as pure sports entertainment, material for generating highlights that could be replayed and broken down by the announcing team. By the end of its run, the show was arguably better at presenting its sporting action on TV than many of the big boys, at least until the world’s arenas and stadiums got retrofitted into giant TV studios to make things easier for the people putting on the broadcasts.

But outside the games, there wasn’t much else to American Gladiators. Contenders got brief interviews to help audiences tell them apart, but the show treats the home team—its regular cast—more as obstacles than as characters. The gladiators’ identities are relics of a time when signifiers like “Surfer” and “Xtreme” could pass as personality types. The only way they expressed themselves was through trash talk. You learn more about the average one-off Jeopardy! contestant than spectators ever did about the men and women who worked as gladiators through years of broadcasts. The show’s house athletes became stars because of how they tackled; how they jousted; how they threw themselves about on a ceiling-mounted, Velcro-covered, life-size slot car racetrack.

Which makes sense. You don’t build these people up as all-conquering titans one minute only to sit them down after the commercial break and have them tell the audience about their careers in the Canadian Football League. American Gladiators reasoned that mystique was more important to its brand than access. And for a time, that was right.

American Gladiators debuted three years before The Real World laid a new path for television, one that followed character and interpersonal conflict toward drama and spun narrative out of purportedly “real” human interactions. Sports—and more crucially the companies that curate them on television and the internet—have taken the same course as reality TV. Part of what has driven the NBA’s growing popularity in recent years is the enjoyment many fans get out of the league’s interpersonal dramas and character clashes. Today’s actual professional sports contests represent a fraction of the footage needed to fill a 24-hour news cycle on a cable station or social network. So journalists and producers have swiped ideas from cable news, professional wrestling, and reality television to extend the leagues’ storylines and fill the time as entertainingly as possible. Modern sports media uses its new access to athletes via social media to flesh out who they are, tap into both player and organizational histories, and manipulate fan loyalty conflicts—all the things American Gladiators did its best to leave aside in favor of the athletic spectacle.

The show just missed the point where the zeitgeist started to shift. It didn’t know how to mine the injuries and petty feuds as fuel for the content furnace, treating them as news items rather than storylines. Halfway through the series’s run, a number of its best-known gladiators left the show because they weren’t happy with their cut from the candy bars and action figures sold with their faces on them. Picture the awkward meetings and tearful phone calls a modern show could make of a storyline like that.

From today’s vantage point—where MTV’s reality competition show The Challenge has aired for 34 seasons over 21 years—it’s easy to imagine what a more narrative-focused American Gladiators would look like. But it chose to be a game show instead of reality TV—because it didn’t know how to be reality TV yet. Snippets of its reality are instead confined to the fascinating and tragic “Notes” column of Wikipedia’s list of gladiators, where factoids about career-ending injuries and early deaths appear alongside previous game show experience and, for instance, that one cast member “reprised his role as Malibu on Tosh.0.”

Because the show was so close to what so much future reality TV would become yet was decidedly not quite there, it feels less like a time capsule and more like a curio from an alternate timeline. Imagine an NBA in which no one knew what a cupcake emoji meant to Kevin Durant. Imagine an NFL offseason where the only steps in the Antonio Brown story were “He’s not practicing” and “He’s been released.” How would you explain to someone from 1989 that the world’s best basketball player was attempting to trademark the phrase “Taco Tuesday” because millions of people had watched his self-published videos where he yells it in a funny voice?

The big sports leagues have survived for the better part of a century by stealing and adapting ideas from each other and the culture at large to respond to a changing market. During its run, American Gladiators figured out what kinds of action fans wanted to see and how to show it to them, but it didn’t anticipate that viewers might want a little soap opera to go with their spectacle. The show stuck to sports—just as sports and television decided that that approach was history.