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6 min

Copenhagen welcomes the world for 2009 Outgames

Sporting event promises innovation & excitement

All of Copenhagen hopes to be buzzing with queer energy next summer, as thousands of gay athletes, artists and activists from all over the world come together for the second World Outgames.

Organizers in the Danish capital plan to weave the global gay sporting event right into the fabric of the famously gay-positive city.

“We try to get as far away from stadiums as possible and get a lot of activities out on the streets,” says Uffe Elbaek, the Outgames’ CEO. Copenhageners seem up for it: The city itself is co-producing the event and local players of all persuasions are already on board.

Elbaek intends to produce the whole extravaganza on a human scale. “It will be fun, it will be personal, it will be down to earth,” he enthuses. The Outgames will bookend athletic competitions with a wide-ranging cultural program and a human rights conference, infusing the sports spectacle with art, politics and parties.

It’s a tall order, but Elbaek has a reputation as an innovative organizer. He is well-known as the founder of Kaos Pilot, a progressive school for entrepreneurs that has expanded from the Danish city Aarhus to Mälmo, Oslo, Rotterdam and Stockholm. He remains chair of the school’s international board.

Elbaek is known for mixing together unlikely bedfellows with impressive results. The Outgames team includes a retired captain of industry and a supreme court judge as well as a drag queen performance artist and a radical lesbian DJ who enjoys spinning for gay men’s sex parties. The festival’s flavour promises to be a complex fusion from the mingling of these diverse competencies and creative juices.

Elbaek heads up an organization that is overseen at arm’s length by an innovative trio of partners: the city of Copenhagen, the local tourist authority Wonderful Copenhagen and Copenhagen Gay Life, an umbrella group representing the city’s gay community.

Klaus Bondam, one of the city’s two gay mayors, brought a proposal to city council, which voted unanimously in favour of producing the Outgames. “From the far left to the far right, everyone voted for it,” says Elbaek.

The outcome is surprising given the spectrum of political opinion on city council, which includes representatives of the fringe Danish People’s Party (DPP).

At the time of the vote, the DPP’s lead councillor was Louise Frevert, an anti-immigrant, lesbian former porn star. “She has a very weird profile,” says Elbaek, “Outspoken lesbian politician from a rightwing party. It’s an interesting concept.”

City council also approved funding for the Outgames in the amount of 23 million Danish kroner, almost $5 million. The city considers it a good investment. “Basically the idea of hosting these events is that people come back,” says Bondam. “To be honest, it’s good business for the city; it’s good business that reinvests. It’s a lot of money, but in the big book, we survive it.”

The first Outgames took place in 2006 in Montreal, which produced a flashy affair with events in the city’s Olympic stadium. Montreal had won the bid to host the Gay Games that summer, but lost its status after a dispute with Games leadership over its business plan.

Montreal forged ahead with the Outgames, which held opening ceremonies just a few days after the rival Gay Games wrapped up in Chicago. The Chicago games hosted a predominantly US crowd while Montreal received a more diverse, international group. The rivalry sometimes manifested as “America versus the world,” proving that gay communities are not immune to such crude divisions.

It was widely agreed that Montreal produced a superior event, but it also ran an unplanned deficit of more than $5 million, bilking its supporters and proving the Gay Games right in its decision to reject the city. Chicago almost broke even.

In the wake of the 2006 financial disaster, Copenhagen plans to turn Montreal on its head.

“We think that it’s possible to really get this nice Copenhagen, Scandinavian attitude, that this event is going to be very human,” says Elbaek.

“It’s really something about human connections between people and instead of trying to, for example, make a big opening event in the big sports arena, which is actually very impersonal — suddenly it’s the TV production that rules the program.”

Instead, expect a big opening bash in the city’s main square and beach barbecues with fireworks. “We all want what it takes to have a great political statement on the city square,” says Elbaek. “Then we’ll go all together, maybe to a very beautiful central park called Ursa’s Park, which has an old, gay history — that was where the men were cruising.” Elbaek envisions “the biggest dinner table in the opening, with 10,000 gay people from around the world in this beautiful park with great music.”

While it’s too early for specific activities to be laid out in detail, the Outgames staff have identified five key values for the festivities: sustainability, cultural diversity, social innovation, transparency and generosity. Sustainability is not just about being green, it means avoiding the classic fallout from gargantuan sporting events which tend to create a vacuum of debt and underused facilities in their wake.

“These events suck up all the energy and the focus and then the people are burned out afterwards,” says Elbaek, “so we really have a strong focus on how can we create a sustainable organization.”

Montreal’s failures have also raised eyebrows at city hall. “They voted for the event before Montreal and then people started to read about the news coming out of Montreal,” says Elbaek. “So there have for sure been critical questions: How are we able to secure that this event here in Copenhagen is not going to go bankrupt?

“So that’s the big, big question. If you look through the history of [similar] gay events, nearly all have gone out with a negative deficit.
So we have to be very, very smart in Copenhagen to see how we can do it differently.

“It’s not only gay events, but events as events, that there’s a certain kind of DNA code, that you get in love with your own ideas and start to see, suddenly, ‘Oh, let’s have Liza Minnelli on a big stage in the big sports arena,’ whatever. So, in a way, suddenly the project takes over.”

The Outgames team isn’t taking chances. “First of all, the core staff has decided that we’ll only start activities for which we know we have money, which means that we’re not going to make a program that’s bigger than we’re actually able to do with the money we already have,” Elbaek explains.

“So every time we get a new sponsor, then we can grow the program bigger and bigger.

“At the same time, we try to get a lot of the institutions in this city to create Outgames events with their own money. So, for example, the city museum will create an exhibition about gay life in Copenhagen through the last 200 years. This is not done with our money but their own money.”

Fiscal responsibility is at the root of another core value, transparency. “Everyone is able to look over our shoulder and see what we spend the taxpayer’s money on or funds from our sponsors,” Elbaek says, “so they can really see how the money flows and why it flows as it does.”

A highlight of the cultural program is Out Cities. “It’s kind of a world exhibition for big cities,” says Elbaek. “We will give away a big public space for each city to show the best they can bring to Copenhagen so you can say ‘Hey, I want to visit Rio.’ Then you walk down to the square. ‘I’ll go to Berlin’ or ‘I’ll take a walk to Amsterdam.'”

Several cities are on board already: Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Mexico City and Aarhus. Toronto mayor David Miller’s office expressed interest, but indicated that Tourism Toronto ultimately declined the invitation to showcase Toronto at the Outgames.

Elbaek wants to ensure components of the Outgames continue to resonate long after the closing ceremonies. For the human rights conference, he foresees a practical forum where gay communities can learn from each other’s successes. “Where Montreal was very on a principle level and very academic in a way, or political, the conference in Copenhagen will be very focused on best practice in [a selection of] topics which will highlight the conference.

“If you take the topic of education: Which city or school district in the world has been dealing with gay issues in the most interesting and outstanding way? For example, Oslo in Norway has just voted on a new public school policy concerning gay issues.

“I think that’s really inspiring for gay communities around the world, saying they did it in Oslo, they did it in Denmark, they did it in Cape Town, this is how they’re dealing with it in San Francisco or Sydney or whatever.”

The Outgames has set for itself an ambitious agenda but, this being Copenhagen, don’t expect the tone to be too serious. Elbaek assures, “It’s going to be super fun.”