6 min

Who’s keeping score, anyway?

Montreal's Outgames injected politics into its sexy gloss

FINISH LINE. Swimmers compete at the world's first Outgames. Credit: Nancy Lyons photo

How to find a tag to describe the world’s first Outgames that Montreal just staged so gloriously?

A few come to mind: the organized games, the friendly games, the successful games, the media games or the lovers’ games (more on that later).

After the famous and acrimonious split between the Federation Of Gay Games and Montreal organizers, the Outgames had been caught up in bitter political games for the last four years. But they put all that behind them to stage a truly classy celebration.

Indeed, few people in Montreal were even talking about the Gay Games held in Chicago two weeks earlier. Everyone here was having too good a time.

Pat and Valerie from Vancouver, experiencing their first queer sporting tournament, were blown away by the friendliness of the city and the helpfulness of the 5,200 volunteers. “We’ve met so many people and they’re all our friends now,” says Valerie.

There was nightly entertainment at the athletes’ village in Square Viger and a nightly parade of partiers strolling along Ste Catherine St in the gay village, which became a pedestrian walkway for the entire week.

Certainly, the games weren’t perfect.

A straight men’s waterpolo team from Quebec, which entered the games for the competition, thoroughly embarrassed themselves by making homophobic comments in the shower room after a match. They won a gold medal but four of the offending players voluntarily suspended themselves from the final game.

While Montreal hit its revised goal of 12,000 athletes, some sports — notably softball — suffered from the rivalry with Chicago’s Gay Games. Eight women’s teams made the trek to Sydney Australia for the 2002 games, while only four arrived in Montreal; three of them were from Canada. “That was extremely disappointing,” says Toronto Storm coach Carol Hylton. “But we still really bonded and had fun as a team.”

The Big O, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, threatened to be the Big Empty O for opening ceremonies thanks to exorbitant ticket prices. But organizers slashed prices and offered ticket buyers free extras at the final hour, ensuring there were some 30,000 folks in the stands to provide an emotional rush for the athletes’ march into the stadium.

By week’s end, Outgames organizers were affording themselves a smug smile. If the estimates available at press time hold, they’re on target to break even and meet downscaled but respectable tourism projections of $100 million in economic benefits for the city. That’s a decent return, given the $14 to $17 million spent on the event.

Organizers could do little about the biggest complaint of the games — the heat wave that swept the city. Hockey players played, quite literally, in a fog while beach volleyball players collapsed after competing in 30-plus temperatures. “We couldn’t stand on the podium because it was so hot,” says Toronto’s Carlos Anton, who won a beach bronze with teammate Quinn Wong,

The other major complaint was that there just wasn’t time to take in all the action on the field, the parties and the nightly entertainment.

But enough of the gushing. Here’s a taste of the games we played.

The not-so-polite games

The opening ceremonies were flowing along slickly — perhaps too much so. The show, with its professional musicians and cameo performances from Cirque du Soleil, felt like a made-for-TV rock concert. Completely missing was a queer, grassroots community edginess, unless you count kd lang’s shirt — it looked like she had slept in it for a week.

Yes, out tennis star Martina Navritilova and Outgames co-president Mark Tewksbury read the Declaration Of Montreal, developed by the International Conference On LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] Human Rights. But it went on and on, making one wonder if the conference attendees spent their entire time writing this seven-page document that contained no catchy phrase for anyone to, well, catch on to and remember.

You had to wonder, would these games — with much involvement from government and corporate sponsors — have any political grit at all?

And then the booing started. It was sustained and angry and targetted at the representative of the federal Conservative government, the Public Works Minister Michael Fortier. Stephen Harper failed to keep former prime minister Paul Martin’s pledge to open the games and declined to welcome international participants to Canada in the official program.

With the booing, Canadian fans and athletes scored an opening political shot at these Outgames. It was both rude and beautiful.

The media games

Some 350 media people from around the world arrived in Montreal to give this queer sporting event unprecedented exposure. While the residents of Sydney barely realized they were hosting the Gay Games there in 2002, Montreal’s citizenry caught the Outgames buzz thanks to extensive coverage in the mainstream media.

About 450,000 Quebeckers tuned in to watch TV coverage of the opening ceremonies, making it the most highly watched TV program that night. TVA, Radio Canada, CBC and the city’s newspapers offered extensive daily coverage. Heck, even the New Yorker and USA Today sent correspondents.

But Montreal’s French daily newspaper La Presse took the gold medal for originality. The term “embedding journalists” took on new meaning as reporters signed up as participants to offer insiders’ takes on the games.

The professional games

The games’ slogan was, “We play for real.” And the physique, track and field, and triathlon knew the Outgames were serious when antidoping officials pulled out medal winners for random drug testing.

Rachel Corbett, the executive director of the Gay And Lesbian International Sport Association (GLISA), which administers the Outgames, says the athletes were surprised — but pleasantly so. “They were honoured to be treated like real athletes. This is a real competition. These are real results.”

Indeed, about 30 of the sports were sanctioned by sporting federations. That means world and national records set by Outgames athletes will be recognized internationally, including a world record by US swimmer Daniel Veatch, for the 200-metre backstroke in the 40 to 44 age category.

The poignant games

In Patricia Nell Warren’s groundbreaking novel about gay athletes, The Front Runner, things didn’t go so well for the track star protagonist who died before completing the final lap of the men’s 5,000-metre race in the Montreal ’76 Olympics. Back then, a love affair between a track star and his coach could hardly end well.

But Warren, 70, had a chance to rewrite the ending for our Outgames times. Helped by the runners’ group International Front Runners, Warren was allowed to walk the final lap of the 5,000-metre race, so she could finish first in honour of her character Billy Sive, who did not.

“It’s amazing that there’s a global network of gay runners,” says Warren. “It’s not something I could have even imagined when I wrote the book.”

The lovers’ games

And those crazy-for-love Front Runners added another happy twist to the 5,000-metres race. As Dean Cowell ran the final lap, Gerard Broussard had friends hoist a banner in the stands, declaring: “Dean, I love you. Will you marry me?” Broussard met Cowell at the finish line, bent on one knee and proposed. Cowell accepted. Fans went crazy. More than one official reached for Kleenexs to wipe away tears.

The (post) Olympic games

Outgames copresident and Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury had his Olympic déjà vu when he returned to the pool to swim the 100-metre backstroke and found himself in the lane next to former nemesis Daniel Veatch, whom Tewksbury swam against in Seoul in 1988.

“I think back, and there were gay people like Daniel all around me, right in the next lane, but we weren’t out and we were so alone,” says Tewksbury.

Tewksbury swam to the gold in this meet but missed setting a world record in his age group by less than two seconds.

“I can’t compare this gold to an Olympic gold but I can honestly say that I have never felt better in my life, more complete as a person.”

Meanwhile, Ingi Thor Johnnson, a former Olympic swimmer from Iceland, was at the Outgames promoting his organization Out Proud Olympians. They identified some 30 former Olympians competing in the Outgames.

What’s in a gold medal?

Many of the most poignant moments of the games had nothing to do with winning.

Like Toronto’s Meera Dhebar, completing her first triathlon and bursting into tears when friends met her at the finish line to congratulate her.

“I’ve never had anyone cheer me on before,” says Dhebar. “It was just amazing.”

Or Kate Moore of Toronto, who won seven gold and three silver in swimming, but counting her favourite gold medal as the one she gave away to a 10-year-old boy. “He was there to watch his uncle swim and he was so excited by all my medals that I just gave him one. I hope it inspires him.”

Still, winning can be sweet, even for the most unlikely reasons. Take my hockey team, the Toronto Grimm Jesters. We let our tempers and emotions beat us in a game against Quebec and started pointing fingers at each other.

To our shock, we were knocked out of the competitive round and relegated to gold-medal play in the recreational division. We expected to crush our opposition from St John’s, Nfld. We fired about 50 shots at the St John’s goaltender but we could not score.

The game ended in a 1-1 tie. Overtime ended in a tie. Through the game, the awesome play of the St John’s goalie forced us to face virtually every demon we possessed as a team, to battle through our emotions to stay positive, cool, focussed and supportive of each other.

The game came down to penalty shots, forcing our goalie, Kathy Kelly, to find her confidence. She did. She stopped their shooters. We finally managed to score. We won the gold but that hardly begins to tell the story.

The next games

The party to promote the Copenhagen Games in 2009 was packed, but that’s to be expected. What’s more telling about the future of the Outgames were six cities in Montreal sniffing out the possibility of hosting Outgames 2013.

Mark Tewksbury sees that as proof that the Montreal model for hosting games, a partnership between LGBT community sports associations, tourism and government, works.

As the week drew to a close, Tewksbury admitted to feeling glum at the prospect of the games ending.

“I was at the ballroom gala and this really strong dyke from the UK, covered in tattoos, came up to me and said, ‘Oh, love, this isn’t over. It’s just beginning.'”

Well put.