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7 min

The queerest of all sports battles

How rival queer games ended up splitting athletes

Credit: Corey Pierce

It will go down as one of the nastiest cases of infighting that has ever rocked the queer world. But really good things are coming from the divorce, really they are.

So let’s cut to the bitter end of a potentially beautiful relationship.

A hotel room in Chicago, 2003. The two parties, along with their lawyers, have been cooped up here since early morning in 11th-hour negotiations. On the table is a 600-page doorstop of a contract. (The other side says it’s 400 pages; can they agree on anything?) It’s pushing 10pm. How bill-by-the-hour lawyers love days like these. And this is the third year and 13th attempt. It’s make up or break up day. To that, at least, both sides agree.

The characters are surprising, not what you’d expect of an affair gone sour between a young heartbreaker and an old radical.

The youngster has money, plenty of it. That would be vibrant, sexy Montreal, fittingly represented by the charismatic, handsome, toothy Mark Tewksbury. Barely two years after bursting out of the closet in 1998, the former Olympian became the poster boy for Montreal’s 2001 bid to host the 2006 Gay Games. What’s not to love about the dashing copresident – his Olympic gold medal, his experience representing Canada on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), his still-trim swimmer’s physique, his Donny Osmond smile?

Tewksbury had never been to the Gay Games before Montreal asked him to lead their bid, which is audacious – a massive lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) gathering of 24,000 participants (more than double the size of Sydney’s 2002 Games), $172 million in expected economic benefits for the city, an international conference on LGBT Human Rights with 2,000 delegates. So it will cost millions – close to 20, in fact. The Games are part of Montreal’s big fat gay marketing campaign, a 10-year plan to make the city a major international gay tourist destination. Montreal is confident they can pull it off because this is gay-friendly Canada, not the US, as Montreal is perhaps too fond of telling their Bush-bashed cousins. Here, the LGBT community can work with government: three levels kicked in $3 million, with Montreal offering millions more in services, facilities and loans of employees. Heck, even former Prime Minister Paul Martin appeared on the bid video welcoming the queer world to la belle province. It’s a scenario most American cities would die for.

So what’s the problem?

The oldster has plenty of experience – so much that he’s heard it all before. That would be the impoverished, oft-burned Federation Of Gay Games (FGG), led by overextended volunteer copresidents who have devoted more than a decade of their lives to the cause. But what a cause. We can thank the Gay Games, founded in 1982 by the late Olympic athlete Tom Waddell, with showing us a new way to be proud, out, strong. Athletes came back from those first Games in San Francisco, then Vancouver in ’90, then New York in ’94 absolutely transformed. Inspired? Hell, they became driven activists, organizing sports teams and entire leagues. In a time when the queer world revolved around bars and bathhouses, pink-turf sports gave us friends, extended families, communities.

So how did the Gay Games – which along with Outgames has an April registration deadline for athletes – get a bad rap?

As successful as they were politically and emotionally, the Gay Games were an economic disaster. While bringing in millions of tourist dollars to host cities (New York estimated $300 million), the organizing committees for the last four Gay Games lost money, leaving leaders and businesses devastated. Amsterdam in ’98 and Sydney in ’02 went bankrupt. A significant portion of the FGG’s licensing fee – $30 a participant, more than $600,000 – went unpaid, impoverishing the FGG. They had big plans for professional staff and headquarters and expansion. But by the time Montreal sashays into the picture, the future of the Games is in jeopardy – unless these games break even.

The fight, perhaps, is inevitable.

Scared, embattled, pessimistic, FGG starts hammering at Montreal to scale back their plans.

“The common problem (with past deficits) is that initial budgets were too ambitious,” says FGG copresident Robert Mantaci. “So we suggested Montreal take a conservative approach, with the flexibility to increase if things go well.”

The FGG behaves like a controlling parent, wanting approval over not only how Montreal spends its allowance from Games’ registrations, but additional money the city brings in – government funding, corporate sponsorships. Says FGG copresident Kathleen Webster: “The Gay Games belong to the community. Our rights of approval were over significant infusions of money – they had to be related to the Games mission.”

But what is that mission?

As Montreal sees it, the FGG is stuck in the past, when the Games was a small, volunteer-driven community event. But even before Montreal, they had mushroomed into a big Olympic-style show. The kid’s solution is not to scale back the Games, but to beef up management, adding professional staff to run things. The problem with the Games, as Montreal begins to see it, is the FGG itself.

“I was very surprised to find there was a similar kind of hierarchy [as the IOC] only the FGG was not based on wealth and privilege, but sheer will and volunteerism,” says Tewksbury. “Unfortunately, 10 to 12 years in, the same people were still running it. There was no room for new ideas. How do you take history and knowledge and integrate that with new ideas and make it work?”

Good question.

Back at the hotel room in Chicago, it comes down to this. Seven people in the room. At stake is a celebration that’s supposed to unite the global queer community. Perhaps that awesome responsibility works some magic. As the clock ticks toward 10pm, miraculously, the two sides reach an agreement – a scaled-back version of Montreal’s plan, 16,000 participants (at press time, Montreal’s officially declared number is 12,000 athletes). They send their lawyers away to draft the contract. Out come the drinks.

“Everyone was crying and hugging,” says Webster. And then they were just crying. At 2am, the deal is dead. Either Montreal walked away from the contract or the FGG pushed them, insisting on a clause for financial control that Montreal had already said they would not sign. The FGG’s Mantaci calls the clause “the right for supervision of major changes to the budget.” Montreal calls it a veto. The two sides call it quits – with each other, but not with their games.

Montreal retreats, determined to carry on with their vision – renaming their games the Outgames, scheduled for this Jul 29 to Aug 5.

The FGG retreats, determined to carry on with their vision – reawarding the Gay Games to Chicago, stunning Montreal by preemptively scheduling their event two weeks earlier, Jul 15 to 22.

The children of the divorce are livid.

The Games that are supposed to unite us are dividing us. Many loyalists argue for sole custody – their city athletic organizations will go to the Gay Games or nothing.

“It tore our board apart,” says Team Vancouver’s Glenn MacDonald. “We lost some good people.”

After the shock passes, most come around to supporting both events. “It doesn’t make either side particularly happy, but we’ve taken a middle road,” says Team Toronto’s Rob Lavery. “Why should we choose sides?”

Tell that to Jim Provenzano, who curated an exhibit on the history of gay sports, currently running in San Francisco. In a caffeine-fuelled staccato, Provenzano charges that Montreal’s Outgames were, “born over money…. The roots are multimillion dollar grants from government and tourism…. It’s driven by corporate decisions to create a new brand to exploit gay tourism opportunities…. There’s a sense of history being stolen…. They’re building on 25 years of FGG work…. They’ve got the whole Quebec revolutionary thing going on.”

Yes, Montreal pissed off more than a few people. But now, with just three months to go, Montreal’s upstart Outgames are garnering more support than the Gay Games – at least in Canada and internationally. Canadian cities and most Europeans are heading to Montreal, on target to attract 16,000 participants from nearly 120 countries. Chicago’s Gay Games, the scaled back version the FGG wanted, are on target to attract 12,000 – but more than 70 percent will come from the US. (At press time, Chicago’s last official number of registrants is 10,000.)

Has it become the world games versus the US games?

There are a few reasons for Montreal’s advantage including a three-year headstart organizing. Plus confusion still reigns: many going to the Outgames still think it’s the Gay Games. But there are other reasons Montreal is emerging as the games of choice.

After a breakup, what do spurned lovers do but try to prove they’re right? Montreal immediately hosted a think tank, inviting 20 sports activists from around the world to discuss the future of queer sports, though the subtext was more about how to fix what they saw as broke – the FGG. Could they fix it? They decided not, forming the Gay And Lesbian International Sport Association (GLISA) instead. Think of GLISA as an FGG without the baggage. Rather than being run by volunteers, GLISA has hired professional administrators to provide ongoing support to athletic organizations around the world. As well as running quadrennial World Outgames, GLISA’s continental organizations will host yearly continental Outgames – next up is Calgary in 2007.

Perhaps most importantly, GLISA expands the FGG mission, reaching out to underdeveloped communities in Eastern Europe, Africa and South America to help them organize. It is also forging connections to mainstream sporting organizations to help fight homophobia on that turf. Every Outgames will also have a human rights conference with a serious advocacy component. GLISA’s primary goal, says executive director Rachel Corbett, is to build a business model that puts government funding and corporate sponsorships to work empowering LGBT communities.

GLISA has applied to Sport Canada for long-term funding but GLISA doubters wonder whether Montreal and Canada will continue bankrolling the organization when the torch passes to the next Outgames, scheduled for 2009 in Copenhagen. Some Outgames critics admit that the Montreal event may be successful, but it also might be a special case. They also worry about how often the phrase “business model” comes up among Outgames advocates – will sponsorships and marketing synergies overshadow the athletic event?

But you can’t help but look back and wonder, what if the relationship had worked? The Gay Games expect to draw 12,000, the Outgames 16,000. Tally them up and you have more than the 24,000 Montreal originally projected. But now Montreal has to watch its most important gay tourist market, the US, flocking to Chicago’s Gay Games. And the FGG has to watch GLISA become the premier gay sports organization in the world.

Ah, love. Sometimes it can make people really stupid.