The Glory of the Gay Games

by Joe Clark

First published 1994

The cultural/athletic extravaganza known as Gay Games IV and Cultural Festival that's enveloping New York this week is without a doubt momentous, ground-breaking, and historic. That's due not only to its size - with 11,000 registered athletes, the Gay Games beats the Barcelona Olympics' jock-count of 10,568-- but also to its pivotal role in the emerging mainstream awareness of queer issues in sport. Just as Americans en masse were finally ready to debate the issue of "gays in the military" last year after decades of discrimination had gone on largely unnoticed by everyone but queers and the military brass, so too are Americans gradually coming to grips with the idea that sports are not reserved for straight people only. The gays-in-the-military issue may not have been resolved the way we'd have liked, and there's no guarantee that the mythical General Population will necessarily warm to open queerness in athletics. But gay sports-- and gayness in sports-- are incipiently becoming a topic of foreground conversation, and any sort of discussion is better than invisibility.

Though the jock world is home to only three out athletes at competitive levels-- tennis ace Martina Navratilova, British soccer player Justin Fashanu, and Canadian figure-skater Matthew Hall-- the wall of silence is crumbling. Consider some facts:

With any luck, this year's Games will merge the subjects of homosexuality and sports in the forefront of public consciousness as never before. But as the saying goes, to know your past is to know yourself, so here's a primer on the history and principles of the Gay Games.

We owe it all to Tom

The Gay Games are a rarity: A social movement with a direct lineage to exactly one person, paratrooper-physician-father-artist-(dec)athlete Tom Waddell, the greatest hyphenate in American gay history. Waddell had enough athletic ability to make it onto the Olympic decathlon squad in 1968 (placing sixth), an experience which clearly laid the foundation for his eventual conception of the Games. The Olympics have been rent by social upheaval for decades, and Waddell doubtless had these problems in mind when he wrote this in a Gay Games II handbook: "The message of these games goes beyond validating our culture. The Gay Games were conceived as a new idea in sport based on inclusion rather than exclusion. Since anyone from anywhere is welcome to participate in this event, we transcend the traditional problems of ageism, sexism, and racism, and just as importantly, nationalism. There are no competing world ideologies in these games."

It was only in 1980-- not that long ago even in the short lifespan of the gay-liberation movement-- that Waddell began talking up the idea of a Gay Olympics. The first competitions were to be held in 1982. While the concept was right on, the nomenclature wasn't: Waddell and San Francisco Arts and Athletics Inc., the organizing group, were sued by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which charged that the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 gave USOC exclusive rights to the word Olympic-- irrespective of the fact that organizers of the Nebraska Rat Olympics and the Police Olympics did not face similar lawsuits. (One also wonders why, if the term Olympic has to be protected to prevent public confusion, USOC to this day permits the Special Olympics and Junior Olympics to use the term.)

A lower court agreed with USOC, not only permanently forbidding the use of the term "Gay Olympics" but consenting to the USOC's motion to recoup $96,000 in USOC legal fees from Waddell. "I don't see why they're getting at us," Waddell said in 1982, "much less how any committee can take a word that has been in use for 2,500 years and decide nobody else can use it for their games." USOC lawyer Vaughn Walker oversaw placing a lien on the home of Waddell in 1987. (Walker would later testify in a federal judgeship nomination that he never "acted in any way to bring unhappiness" to Waddell, who had advanced AIDS at the time of the lien.) The pro-USOC decision was upheld all the way to the Supreme Court (though USOC eventually laid off Waddell for its legal fees), and that's why the quadrennial athletic extravaganza is called the Gay Games.

Bigger... and bigger... and bigger...

The Games are identified by nickname as much as by year and host city. The first Games, Challenge '82, were held in San Francisco; some 1,300 athletes competed in 16 events. Gay Games II, AKA Triumph '86, stayed in San Francisco but ballooned to 3,500 participants and 17 sports. By this time a momentum was building, and cities were actually vying to host the Games. Vancouver got them in 1986, with Celebration '90 (7,500 athletes in 32 sports; 1,200 partook in a parallel Cultural Festival) marking the first time the Games had left their American homeland. This year, of course, Unity '94 is the nickname, and over 11,000 athletes have been registered in 31 sports, with participants in the Cultural Festival.

Guiding principles

"Faster, stronger, higher" is, um, a nice enough motto for the Olympic Games, but in the real world of Olympic competition those comparatives relate to one's competitors, not oneself. Run faster than the jock beside you in the starting blocks; be stronger than the weightlifter who follows you; jump higher than the previous pole-vaulter. An athlete who finishes as high as fourth place is arguably a loser in the Olympic system, even if only a fraction of a second separates a bronze medal from a lifetime of (imposed) disappointment and regret.

Not so at the Gay Games. "The most important principle behind the Gay Games is this notion of inclusivity," says Rick Peterson, co-president of the Federation of Gay Games (FOGG), the Gay Games governing body. "We have a history of being excluded in athletics. Many gay youth... who are boys don't see being in athletics as a possibility for anyone who fits the stereotype of being gay, and for many women who have a love of sport early on who turn out to be lesbian, they're ridiculed for being tomboys when they play sports."

Then there are the principles of participation and personal best, the latter of which may conjure images of Mariel Hemingway's 1982 lesbo-jock cinematic vehicle but which means much more to Gay Games aficionados (quoth Tom Waddell: "To do one's personal best is the highest form of personal achievement"). In short, the official Gay Games line is that the only standard to which you're competing is your own. Maybe just finishing the hundred metres is your goal. Or perhaps you're good enough at racquetball that you dream of coming in first.

It's here, though, that we find one of the few areas of discord in the entire Games movement. Some maintain that any emphasis, no matter how slight, on comparative results (who comes in first, second, third, etc.) is contrary to the goal of participation. Brian Pronger, a lecturer in the Dept. of Physical and Health Education at the University of Toronto and author of The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, declares that "the whole emphasis on competition is something that has destroyed mainstream sport. I think that declaring gold, silver, and bronze is hierarchical and puts a stress on competition that is counterproductive.

"Also," he says, just warming up, "this personal best stuff. This is a problem I have with Masters sports, too. Personal best is ageist, because for instance, I will never have a personal best in swimming again. The only way I can get a personal best in any activity is to try new ones. As you get older, you cannot keep getting better times. If personal best is not based on time or on winning, [as] in the case of soccer, that's fine. But that's not what they're talking about. By personal best they mean time. It's the whole problem of competitive sport. It's outcome-oriented instead of process-oriented."

The Games' fundamental flaw, Pronger says, is that "it's not geared toward the eroticism of physical activity. It's geared toward these external measures, which then get turned into these hierarchical things. It should be promoting the eroticism of physical activity. And I don't simply mean, you know, sex stuff, which I think is fine too, but it should be promoting the beauty of the moving body and how it feels to move and exert yourself."

But as FOGG co-president Susan Kennedy explains, "If there are people in this community whose personal best allows them to set a record, then I think that it's important that those people be recognized for that, because I think that's one more step in showing and breaking down the stereotypes of what people may think about gays and lesbians in general [and] particularly their participation in sports." Rick Peterson: "One way of doing your personal best is knowing how fast you swam the 50-metre freestyle last year and how fast you swam the 50-metre freestyle this year. You can make the argument that the Games are inclusive to all types of athletes-- inclusive of people who care about being first, second, and third," and others.

In addition, Kennedy says, "I think that we can do it all. You can go to a lot of the events, like swimming or some of the track and field events or the marathon or the triathlon or whatever, and those people [for whom] it may be a struggle just to complete the race probably receive as much or more applause and encouragement as the people who came in first."

Step farther afield to Amsterdam and you get a different perspective. "I think that people from all over the world meet each other. I think that's the most important thing from the Games. For me, Gay Games is not only sports. If it was only about sports, I wouldn't join in," says Marjo Meijer of the committee organizing the 1988 Amsterdam Games, who competed in the tennis event in Vancouver. "I think we should not necessarily be like the Olympics as they are now, or have all the sports that the Olympics have now. There are so many sports that are great fun that are not Olympic sports." Meijer's group has plans for games like chess, checkers, and bridge, along with recreational walking and biking events, to form part of their event. "You can broaden the thinking about Gay Games," she says, "give it a flavour of, 'Well, how can people meet? How can you make friends?'"

Still, if this is the extent of disagreement about the Gay Games' mission, it's sure to stand as one of the least contentious queer events of all time. But irrespective of New York's time-proven capacity to hold huge events with minimal disruption, the metropolis is not necessarily as adept at accommodating athletes in 31 divergent, geographically dispersed sports, not to mention tens of thousands of their fans. Thus the success or failure of Unity '94 is apt to be judged on nuts-and-bolts issues, things like transportation, accommodations for people with AIDS and other disabilities, keeping the competitive atmosphere fair and fun, ensuring that people don't succumb to heat prostration during outdoor matches, and-- perhaps most important of all-- not incurring a deficit. The Games are an event to be lived first, thought about later. Go do some living.

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