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Gay Games  

The Gay Games is a quadrennial sporting and cultural event designed for the gay and lesbian community. The brainchild of former Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell, the Games were first held in San Francisco in 1982. Some 1,300 athletes participated in the first competition. Since then, the event has become a lucrative attraction that cities bid for the privilege of hosting. The Games pump millions of dollars into the host city's local economy.

Waddell had originally intended to call the competition the Gay Olympics, but nineteen days before the start of the first games the United States Olympic Committee obtained a restraining order, forbidding the use of that name.

The USOC asserted that it had sole rights to use the name Olympics. Waddell, noting that the USOC had raised no objections to other competitions using the name, told Sports Illustrated: "The bottom line is that if I'm a rat, a crab, a copying machine or an Armenian I can have my own Olympics. If I'm gay, I can't.''

Waddell, who died from complications of AIDS in 1987, conceived the Games as a means of promoting the spirit of inclusion and healthy competition in athletics. As his biographer Dick Schaap explains, "Tom wanted to emphasize that gay men were men, not that they were gay, and that lesbian women were women, not that they were lesbians. He didn't want them to lose their homosexual identity, or hide it; he just didn't want them to be dominated by it, pigeonholed by it.''

Since their inception there have been no barriers to entry for anyone wanting to compete. Although the traditional gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded, no one must "qualify" in his or her sport in order to participate. Moreover, the Games has its share of heterosexual athletes competing, albeit their number is small and they usually participate as team members rather than as individuals.

The Games began a major period of growth when they were hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1990, their first appearance outside of San Francisco. The number of registered athletes jumped almost threefold from 3,500 in 1986 to 9,500 in 1990, with participants coming from 39 countries.

Brian Pronger describes the Games in Vancouver movingly: "It was an almost magic time, during which intensely happy, healthy lesbians and gay men came together and delighted in their lives and being together . . . . The joyful spirit of the game overwhelmed much of the anxiety of the competition.''

The 1994 Games in New York City coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a turning point in the gay rights struggle. With nearly 11,000 athletes, the Games had more participants than would compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics. By now the event had become more mainstream, with politicians and celebrities on hand for the opening and closing ceremonies, and events scheduled for such major venues as Yankee Stadium.

The Games broke away from their North American roots in 1998, when they were hosted by Amsterdam. The 30 official sports (22 determined by the Federation of Gay Games and eight selected to reflect local interest) had 14,700 athletes, 42% of them women.

The crowd at the track and field venue cheered wildly during the women's pole vault competition, when a Dutch athlete set a new national record in the event. In previous Games, recognized records had been posted in swimming events.

The 2002 Games were awarded by the Federation to Sydney, Australia, which used many of the venues from the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Gay Games VII, scheduled for 2006, were originally awarded to Montreal, but after some bitter disagreements between the Federation of Gay Games and the Montreal host committee, the 2006 Games were shifted to Chicago. Without the sanction of the Federation of Gay Games, the Montreal games proceeded as the first of the Outgames.

Cologne hosted the 2010 Gay Games. Future Gay Games are scheduled for Cleveland and Akron in 2014 and Paris in 2018.

Tom Waddell did not live long enough to see the Games become an international phenomenon that cities compete to host and that attract more participants than the Olympics. But he would undoubtedly have been pleased with the realization of his dream, especially of the pride that the Games engender in gay and lesbian athletes.

During the 1994 Games a New York Times editorial concluded: "Many participants found the experience profoundly liberating, a mass statement that their movement had arrived and could never be shoved back into the closet. As one organizer said, 'We will never turn back. We will never be invisible again.'"

Jim Buzinski


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A promotional piece for the first Gay Games, then called the Gay Olympic Games, in 1982.
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   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Chicago

The vigorous Midwestern metropolis of Chicago has been a center of gay and lesbian community and organizing since the early part of the twentieth century.

arts >> Overview:  Sports: Gay Male

While sports, at least on the major competitive level, may be the final closet for gay men, there have nevertheless been a number of gay male elite athletes.

arts >> Overview:  Sports: Lesbian

Although lesbians and athletics have long been identified with each other, lesbian athletes, despite great achievements, still face numerous obstacles.

arts >> Overview:  Sports: Transgender Issues

Fears and misconceptions about transgendered and intersexed athletes abound.

arts >> Bearse, Amanda

One of the first primetime television actors to come out publicly as a gay person, Amanda Bearse has developed a second career as a film and television director and has become an outspoken advocate of gay visibility.

arts >> Jones, Rosie

Golfer Rosie Jones enjoyed great success both as an amateur and a professional; since her public coming out in 2004 she has helped increase glbtq visibility in sports.

social sciences >> Kirby, Michael

Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia, is respected not only for his legal acumen but also for his devoted commitment to the cause of social justice in his homeland and also around the globe.

arts >> Outgames

The first world Outgames, held in Montreal in the summer of 2006, inaugurated what promises to be a quadrennial athletic and cultural event that combines the pursuit of athletic excellence with the joyous celebration of community.

arts >> Tewksbury, Mark

Olympic medalist Mark Tewksbury was closeted throughout his competitive swimming career, but since coming out has become an advocate for glbtq rights.

arts >> Waddell, Tom

Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell is best known for founding the Gay Games, a sports and arts event modeled on the Olympics.


Federation of Gay Games official Web site:

Pronger, Brian. The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Waddell, Tom, and Dick Schaap. Gay Olympian: The Life and Death of Dr. Tom Waddell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.


    Citation Information
    Author: Buzinski, Jim  
    Entry Title: Gay Games  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 25, 2013  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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