But New York's status as a media and cultural nexus worked brilliantly in the Games' favour, lending it mainstream credibility (in daily coverage in the Times, the Daily News, USA Today, and elsewhere) while still holding up Games founder Tom Waddell's ideals of participation, inclusiveness, and pursuit of personal best.
Watching the Games was like peering at a chunk of a hologram: The whole of the event was visible through a fragment thereof, though you may have had to crane your neck a little. Even with a nearly-all-access press pass, no one could possibly visit all 31 of the sports played during the Games. Some representative impressions from the eight sports I did see:
Though the presence of now-openly-gay Greg Louganis as announcer at one of the diving events got tons of press, for the overwhelmingly male audience at poolside Louganis became old news fast after some dazzling dives by Laura Landry, one of the few women entered in that competition. No one was more surprised than I to find that it was more rewarding (and fun) to watch a woman in a conservative one-piece bathing suit execute dives that garnered multiple scores of 9 than to ogle the various low-bodyfat guys in tiny swim trunks who might otherwise have been the big attraction for an audience of fags.
Case in point: Powerlifting vs. physique. The latter competition was one of the major draws of the Games, with finals being held in Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater at ticket prices of up to $100. Evidently people were willing to shell out that kind of money to feast their eyes on very muscular, ultra-lean fags and dykes in swim trunks. But there were grave problems, not only with the logistics of the event but with the event itself. Those who complain that the Gay Games ape mainstream sport to an undue extent could easily write a doctoral thesis on the multi-level sellout that is the physique competition. True enough, Gay Games physique does permit same-sex pairs to compete, and that's important. But as in other bodybuilding meets, you had to be shaved clean to enter; though this rule is ostensibly intended to make muscles more visible for the judges, the effect is to make competitors of both sexes who happen to have body hair feel unwelcome (so much for inclusion) or undergo uncomfortable shaving. (Don't laugh. Among other things, hair-phobia is a source of trauma for gay schoolboys when shirts-vs.-skins basketball games force them to expose more of their prematurely-hairy bodies than they're comfortable looking at themselves.)
Though muscles usually connote health-- much press coverage focused on Ted Kalidas, who competed in physique even though he has AIDS-- the absurd tans sported by nearly all the Caucasian physique competitors are manifestly unhealthy (let's play Count the Carcinomas ten years down the road). Athletes were depersonalized to the max. They were referred to by number only; during preliminary rounds it was common to hear the head judge say something like "Number 171, switch positions with number 186," as though the event were an all-bodybuilder remake of The Prisoner. Indeed, athletes were ordered around like prisoners ("Take a quarter-turn to the right. Relax. Now a side tricep pulldown. Relax. Now arms behind your head for an abdominal display. Relax"). Evaluation rested on minute, niggly evaluations of body parts, worse than anything you'd find in a cruisy gay bar filled with tank-topped muscle boys. A wee bit of fat around the hips or midriff, a little too much water retained, or slightly undersized calves were enough to knock you out of the running.
But it was the spectacularly inept staging of the physique finals that took the cake. Trash-talking hosts Judy Tenuda and John Bourque had all the class and restraint of a drunken Paul Lynde at a celebrity roast. They mangled and mocked competitors' names so badly that a medal was awarded in error. Hisses and cries of "Get on with it!" were heard from a teed-off audience angered at the slow pace of the show. Medals fell off ribbons not once but twice ("This is like doing a physique contest on the Titanic," Bourque said), and it was often more engaging to watch the team of sign-language interpreters at stage left than to pay attention to the show itself. The finals' show-biz grasp exceeded their trailer-park reach.
Compare that to powerlifting, an unsung sport with a whopping 50 contestants (physique had 200). Day one of the event was held in an old gym in the Village on one of the hottest, muggiest days of the year. Even with turboprop-sized fans running nonstop, the air was oppressive and uncomfortable. Still, dozens of spectators stuck around all afternoon to watch women bench-press, deadlift, and squat up to double their body weight. Unlike the physique competition, body types ranged all over the map, from wispy to voluptuous. Here the athlete herself was not the focus of attention; her capabilities were. The unglamorous grit and determination were inspiring: There is nothing quite like witnessing a 200-pound woman bench-pressing over 400 pounds.
More to the point, the camaraderie in the room was palpable. The event was part of the Gay Games, but not everyone there was gay: People who were obviously straight, obviously not straight, and not obviously either happily worked together as judges, spotters, coaches, trainers, and announcers. Roles were fluid; the biggest guy there (advertised as someone who once deadlifted 800 pounds) spent most of his time seated, serving as judge, while one of the smallest women present loaded and unloaded heavy plates onto the bar. Powerlifting is not exactly seen an "appropriate" sport for women in the establishment ethos and audiencemembers seemed to sense this. If someone failed to make a lift, people applauded; if she did make it, the crowd went nuts. Women's powerlifting was a high-water mark for the spirit of the Games.
The Gay Games' paradoxical, love/hate interplay of homosexuality and masculinity (the elixir on which sports run) has elicited tons of analysis-- even in these very pages-- on The Meaning of Queers in Sports. But a crucial lesson of Gay Games IV is that gay people should take part in sports not merely because they are erotic, or because they were estranged from sports as children, or because of the political impact of the Gay Games movement; not because gays are an emerging primo market for Nike and Reebok, or because the Games give you a chance to meet, compete with and against, and perhaps fall in love with people from around the world; and not because running a 10K or diving in a sanctioned competition is a personal challenge for you, or because you finally get to be part of a team, with spiffy uniforms and everything. No, Gay Games IV showed once and for all that gay people should take part in sports because we are so very good at them.