Three weeks before the first Gay Olympics in 1982, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sued the organizers over the word “Olympic.”
The event was the brainchild of San Francisco-based Dr Tom Waddell, a decathlon competitor in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He felt that a gay Olympics would provide an opportunity for gay people to demonstrate to the world that their skills and competitive spirit in sports parallel those of the rest of humanity.
Waddell also wanted to replace the obsession to win at all costs with the positive joys of simple participation. These games would require no minimum ability. Winning would be defined as achieving one’s personal best.
Competition would not stress age, nor would it highlight nationalism, which Waddell felt was a divisive concept. Athletes were encouraged to represent their city rather than their country. Men and women would compete on an equal basis. (Tell that to the IOC, which voted against including women’s ski jumping in the 2010 Winter Games).
In the end, the IOC and USOC won their lawsuit against the Gay Olympics, and the San Francisco Arts and Athletics Association (SFAA) had only a few weeks to remove the word “Olympics” from every piece of advertising, merchandising, program and event signage and replace it with the more generic “Games.”
It was a huge task that almost broke the back of the organizing committee.
The Gay Games remained in San Francisco in 1986,and four years later, Celebration ’90 took place in Vancouver, from Aug 4 to 11. Seventy-three hundred athletes from 27 countries participated in 27 athletic events. There were thousands of volunteers from all over BC.
Though BC Place Stadium was packed to the gills for the opening and closing ceremonies, and there was a cultural component that showcased 2,000 queer writers, visual artists, dancers, actors and musicians, there were no street closures and no parking restrictions. The city did not spend billions of dollars on security.
Vancouverites noticed the influx of queer athletes, proudly sporting their Gay Games shirts and badges. But locals were not asked to change their routines in any way. A small number of police and security officers were employed, but the bulk of security was volunteers from the queer community.
Though people were kept safe, no one was harassed for being against the Gay Games. There were the usual fundamentalist Christians parading with “god hates fags” signs, but they were left to protest in peace. They were free to have their anti-Games signs, as democracy dictates.
In 2010, the sports world is still horribly homophobic. Most queer athletes wait until they retire to out themselves, like Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who came out six years after winning a gold medal. Even when gay athletes are out at the Olympics, their relationships are ignored. When Australian diver Matthew Mitcham won a gold medal in Beijing, there was no talk in the media of his long-term boyfriend, though the spouses of heterosexual athletes are routinely mentioned.
Tom Waddell died of AIDS in 1987, having achieved his goal of showcasing queer athletes.
The Gay Games continues to be an international, co-operative event that excludes no one, does not inconvenience its host city or leave a mountain of debt in its wake.
Perhaps the IOC could learn a thing or two from us.