With the eyes of the world on Rio for the Olympics, this month some queerer eyes are turning elsewhere. That’s because August marks the anniversary of the founding of the Gay Games, which started small and had a controversial past, but remains a major sporting event to this day.
The games were started by Dr. Tom Waddell, a former Olympic athlete. As a kid, he said that competing gave him a masculine edge that helped him avoid the abuse that might normally befall a closeted gay kid. He was a football, gymnastic, and track star in college, but later reflected that he was driven to prove his maleness.
He competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, finishing sixth in the decathalon. From there, he moved to San Francisco and relaxed a bit, joining a gay bowling league that would eventually become the inspiration for the Gay Games.
His work on the project began in 1980, with the intention of raising LGBT visibility and undoing harmful stereotypes. It was a high priority for him that everyone feel welcome at the event, and so he did away with the elitism of the Olympics and invited everyone to participate, without regard for their background or ability. He called the event The Gay Olympics.
But then, the Olympics ruined everything. Just a few days before the competition was set to begin, the owners of the Olympics took legal action to stop him from using the name. The battle took years to play out, and eventually the Olympics won. The event is known as the Gay Games to this day.
From its founding year through today, the Gay Games have prioritized community and personal achievement over competition and dominance. Players are encouraged to work together, to help each other reach new heights, and to showcase their skills. In that regard, the games reflect the best aspects of the LGBT community.
During the HIV crisis, there were questions about whether the games should go on, or whether the time and money involved should be devoted towards combatting the virus and helping people with their health. But Waddell defended the ongoing event, pointing out that the community needed to be uplifted, to strengthen connections, and to highlight the strength of the community. The 1986 games also saw extensive education efforts around safe sex.
Throughout the 90s, the Gay Games continued to expand. The original event offered 17 sports, but by 1998 there were thirty. The event also gained recognition from various major sporting organizations, drawing more professional athletes.
And the games continue to expand to this day. New policies on gender identity welcome trans and nonbinary players. At the most recent games in 2014, President Obama welcomed players from around the world, noting the tremendous cultural change that the games have helped advance. Over the decades, the world has grown steadily more welcoming to LGBT athletes of all kinds. And the next event, in 2018 in Paris, will surely see an even more welcoming environment.
(Featured image via Rick Aiello/Wikimedia Commons)