10 min

How Montreal lost the Gay Games (twice)

Losses nearly derailed the gay sports movement

I have long said of Montrealers what Pericles once famously said of sports-mad Athenians.

“We do not imitate, as we are a model to others,” said the statesman, who opened Athenian democracy to the ordinary citizen, built the magnificent temples and statues on the Acropolis, and created the Athenian Empire, not to mention indulged in some same-sex love.

Okay, so Montreal isn’t exactly the cradle of democracy — though she was the capital of the original United Province of Canada in 1844, before a drunken anglo mob torched the parliament building in Old Montreal on April 25, 1849.

And while it’s true the Olympic Stadium — though widely hailed by architects and tourists as one of the world’s most beautiful stadiums — isn’t exactly the Parthenon, stone-cold Montrealers do think of the Big O as something of a ruin.

But for centuries Montreal was a gateway to the continent and a raucous good-time city. By the time Montreal hosted the inaugural World Outgames in 2006, Greater Montreal’s enormous gay community (estimated at almost 500,000) had truly turned the city into a gay mecca.

So hosting the World Outgames was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the road to those games was paved with broken dreams as Montreal lost the right to host the Gay Games not once, but twice — in both 2002 and 2006 — and their 2006 World Outgames lost a whopping $5.3 million, almost singlehandedly derailing the gay-sports movement.


Montreal originally bid for the 2002 Gay Games. But pretty much everyone knew at the Federation of Gay Games annual convention in Denver in 1997 that Montreal’s bid for those 2002 games was toast when an FGG voting delegate wanted to know why a francophone bystander demanded he take down his Canadian flag during the Divers/Cité Festival’s pride march earlier that year, in the summer of 1997.

Following Quebec’s acrimonious 1995 referendum that Canadian federalists barely won with 50.58 per cent of the votes over the 49.42 per cent voting for separation, only a fool wouldn’t have anticipated such a question during a Q&A session where all questions are fair game. But the question surprised Montreal organizers, many of whom had trouble speaking English, never mind understanding the heavy accents of some foreign delegates.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s bidding delegation — which observers also deemed unfailingly politically correct to the point TO organizers wheeled out a handicapped colleague during their presentation — was stunned when Montreal-based then-FGG co-president Gilles Pettigrew asked what the difference was between Toronto and any American city.

“I was a blank at that point,” Toronto-bid spokesperson Steven Taylor told me afterwards. “But we answered correctly — we’re an international Canadian city that offers more than bidding American cities in terms of ethnic communities and social tolerance.”

Both questions were defining moments in the year-long tug-of-war between Montreal and Toronto to nab second place — and the inside track for 2006 — behind three-time bidder Sydney, who by all accounts could no longer be refused as the FGG expanded into Asia.

So the losing Montreal delegation licked their wounds and returned home where under new leadership they regrouped and put together a sterling bid for the 2006 Gay Games which Montreal was awarded the right to host at the FGG’s annual convention in 2001.

But over the next two years Montreal organizers and the FGG could not come to terms negotiating a licensing agreement to host those Games. The FGG was worried about the size of the event (Montreal projected 24,000 participants, twice the number at Sydney) and Montreal’s huge multi-million dollar budget (especially after the 1994 New York, 1998 Amsterdam and 2002 Sydney games all lost money).

When the FGG and Montreal couldn’t come to terms, the FGG awarded the 2006 replacement Gay Games to Chicago. Undaunted, Montreal hosted the inaugural World Outgames, sanctioned by the newly-formed Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association (GLISA).

“It wasn’t about the numbers,” Montreal 2006 Outgames co-president and onetime Canadian Olympic medalist Mark Tewksbury told me over a greasy breakfast a few weeks later. “They weren’t so terrifying. Financial control was the deal breaker. When they [the FGG] say we walked away, it boggles my mind. After two years of trying to land a licensing agreement, we sat in Chicago [the night of Nov 9, 2003] for 15 hours. At 2 in the morning we received a contract that once again did not reflect any of the language we had agreed to.”

Before everything came to a head at an FGG convention vote the next day, Nov. 10, Mark says, “I did everything humanly possible as co-president to save it. I called every single federation member. Every single one.”


Now Montreal had lost the Gay Games not once, but twice — and after having WON it the second time! I was so pissed I wrote in my column Three Dollar Bill in Montreal’s HOUR magazine, “If the Gay Games are the Uganda of the sports world, then the FGG is Idi Amin.”

The backlash was immediate and I was deluged with email. But nothing was as mean-spirited as the Gay Games discussion board on California-based, the popular home of gay sports jocks.

One reader posted, “Please DO NOT take anything seriously written by Richard Burnett. His column is the bane of every literate and educated homosexual in Montreal; he doesn’t do his homework, he is a stunningly bad writer and his facts are not supported. You would think from his column that he invented Pride (in the same way Al Gore invented the Internet, maybe) and that Montreal was the first city ever to hold one.”

Another commentator called me a “stooge” for Montreal’s “circuit party interests” and one writer even stated, “Interestingly, the Chicago Free Press, which has been critical of Chicago’s bid even before the [original] 2001 bidding [for the 2006 games], has been accepting Montreal 2006 advertising for quite some time… As they say, follow the money.”

Then an August 2005 column by then-Washington Blade executive editor Chris Crain ranted, “[Montreal’s] decision to walk away from the Gay Games and put on a competing event was a betrayal to the Gay Games athletes, volunteers and supporters, and it also betrayed motivations steeped more in money and ego than the spirit of unified sporting competition embodied in the Gay Games ideal.”

Sara Waddell Lewenstein, widow of the late Olympian and Gay Games founder Dr. Tom Waddell, told The San Francisco Chronicle in July 2005, “Montreal didn’t want to be part of the Federation (of Gay Games) — they wanted their own games! Let’s just cut to the chase… There’s only one Gay Games and forever, as long as I live, there will always be the Gay Games.”

The Advocate magazine even had a cover story on the two competing games — and guess who came out smelling like roses?

But by June 2006, New York City’s Village Voice got it right, noting Montreal’s “planning committee balked at the level of oversight desired by the Federation of Gay Games, leading the Montreal organizers to walk away and form their own athletic competition, the Outgames.”

Things got really ugly as registration for Chicago and Montreal competed for the same athletes. In the end, both games drew roughly 12,000 athletes each (which had Montreal hosted the 2006 Gay Games would have amounted to their original projection of 24,000 athletes).

As Martina Navratilova — who read the human-rights Declaration of Montreal at the opening ceremonies with Mark Tewksbury (whose French was brutal) — told me on the eve of the Montreal Outgames, “We’re all headed in the same direction. So let’s please get along.”

But in the next breath she said, “The Europeans opted to come to Montreal because it’s easier to get a visa. [Post 9/11] America is like a prison with barbed wire. They don’t want to let anybody in these days.”

But whereas Chicago didn’t lose any money, Quebec’s then-Municipal Affairs Minister Nathalie Normandeau revealed in November 2006 that Montreal’s Outgames ended up losing a whopping $5.3-million dollars — even though in September 2005 Mark Tewksbury told me, “Montreal is now looking at a financial surplus for the games, and when we’re done I will be busy handing over the legacy of Montreal to the next host city — a database of 50,000 contacts worldwide, media relationships with every single major market in the world, a registration system etc.”

That $5.3-million loss single-handedly destroyed the sterling reputation of Montreal’s hard-working gay community.

“Montreal organizers took pleasure taking jabs at Chicago’s competing Gay Games and promised the Outgames would at least break even,” veteran gay-events producer Puelo Deir, co-founder of Montreal’s Divers/Cité Festival, told me afterwards when the proverbial shit hit the fan. “This taints every gay organization. Now when gay events need government support, they’ll say we can’t be trusted. Divers/Cité and [BBCM’s] Black & Blue [Festival] — which are both well-managed — will have to live with this for years to come.”

After smearing Montreal’s good name and stiffing suppliers a year after Montreal’s 2005 multi-million-dollar-losing FINA World Aquatics and 30 years after the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics ended up costing Montrealers billions of dollars, Outgames co-chair Marielle Dupere arrogantly stated, “There are no regrets about the games. Montreal needs this kind of international event to position itself in the market.”

As I wrote in my HOUR column back in 2006, “Fuck you, we do. Montreal and its gay community were already world class before the carpetbagging Outgames came along, thank you very much.”

A defiant Montreal Outgames director general Louise Roy pointed fingers at the entire Montreal Outgames board, telling the Journal de Montréal, “People are using a cannon to kill a fly.”

But Deir says of Roy, who used to work at Divers/Cité, “I think Louise Roy should take the blame because she was the general director [of the Montreal Outgames]. With an event of this magnitude, a certain level of diplomacy and negotiations were expected and Louise Roy’s style is ‘Ça passe ou ça casse.’ Anyone who’s worked with Louise knows it’s Louise’s way or the highway. She makes Margaret Thatcher look like a wimp.”

Deir predicted the Outgames were in deep trouble from the start “because they had to spend a lot of money around the world selling a new brand from scratch…They were lucky the Europeans were pissed off with the Bush administration’s foreign policy, otherwise it would have been a bigger fiasco.”

About Tewksbury, who launched his motivational book Inside Out: Straight Talk From a Gay Jock during the Outgames, Deir says, “Had I been the poster boy for this event, I would be embarrassed. I think a lot of people in [that] organization were motivated by greed. Many got jobs and one launched a book.”


But I’ll say one thing for sure: Even stone-cold Montrealers couldn’t help but marvel at the enchanting spectacle that was the star-studded opening ceremonies of Montreal’s inaugural World Outgames, which saw 40,000 people fill the Big O, including 12,000 athletes from 111 countries, including brave contingents from such virulently anti-gay nations as Senegal and Pakistan.

These athletes were greeted with spine-tingling standing ovations as they walked onto the field at Olympic Stadium, and k.d. lang was right when she told reporters backstage about PM Stephen Harper, who didn’t attend the opening ceremony, “It’s a sad statement that the national leader of a country that’s one of the most progressive countries in the world chooses to support intolerance.”

The Montreal Outgames also fittingly provided a coming home of sorts for L.A.-based literary legend Patricia Nell Warren, now 74, the former marathon runner who was one of 12 women who crashed the 1969 men-only Boston Marathon, and who sold 10 million copies of her 1974 landmark novel, The Front Runner, about Billy Sives, a gay US long distance runner who was killed before completing the 5,000-metre race at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

“It was exciting for me to actually see the Olympic facilities and the Olympic Village where Billy would have stayed. It made me wish I was a young runner all over again,” Warren told me the day after she ran the last 100 metres of the 5,000-metre race at the Montreal Outgames.

“It was very hot,” Warren recalled, “and I was announced so that people wouldn’t ask, ‘Who’s that woman down the stretch?’ I just jumped on the track and did my thing. Since I have Lyme disease, I don’t run. I walk. But I did a great personal best. And I felt like I was closing a circle.”

Meanwhile, co-founder Cyd Zeigler Jr. wrote after the Outgames, “The Federation of Gay Games had it right in 2001 when, after long deliberations, they decided Montreal was the best choice for 2006. While there are some receipts left to be counted, the rest of the ballots are in and it is official: The Outgames kicked the Gay Games’ ass.”

Zeigler continued, “I went to both events. I went to both opening ceremonies. I traveled around their respective towns and I took in a number of sports. And there is no question who put on the better event. Virtually everything about the Outgames was better than the Gay Games, from the opening ceremonies to presence in the city to organization of the sports to evening activities. My final grade for the Gay Games was a C+ (which, after experiencing Montreal, I now think was too generous); My final grade for the Outgames was an A-, which is about as good as you can possibly expect from a reporter who is digging his nose into every nook and cranny of the event.”

Zeigler also noted, “The Outgames’ success was probably the worst thing to happen to the Gay Games since the death of Tom Waddell. I’m left wondering, if another group, who hadn’t put on an event like this before, can do a better job than the Gay Games, then what is the need for the latter? What sticks in my craw, though, is that this all could have been avoided if the Federation of Gay Games had just stuck to its own plan. In 2001, they awarded Montreal the right to host the Gay Games. After the Sydney Gay Games in 2002, they decided to change the rules. They wanted more control of the finances. They wanted to force Montreal to plan for a smaller event. The organizers in Montreal balked and, in the end, the FGG pushed Montreal to walk away and we were all left with a choice. If the FGG had simply stuck to the plan and believed in the Montreal organizers, it would have been a wildly successful Gay Games with a budget surplus. Instead, the FGG let its own internal politics and hunger for power usurp what was a good decision in 2001.”

Zeigler concluded, “The Outgames put on an event that I didn’t think was possible. They shared a vision for these Games that was more wonderful than anything I had seen in Sydney or Chicago. If the Gay Games does some listening and less talking, maybe they’ll get a glimpse of that same vision. But, I doubt it.”

When all was said and done, the acrimonious battle been Montreal and the FGG turned off gay people around the world. Personally, I no longer am interested in the international gay-sports movement which I believe has not yet truly helped integrate gay athletes in professional major-league sports.

In Montreal, Puelo Deir says, “Right now I think both the Outgames and Gay Games are pathetic. They both have work to do.”

In the end, all these years later, what still bothers me most is that the FGG and Montreal 2006 organizers screwed each other and ended up treating Montreal like a dirty two-bit whore.

Moise’s Apples is Richard Burnett’s monthly column on the history of gay Montreal. Burnett is also Editor-at-Large of Montreal’s Hour magazine where he writes his national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill.