Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Jock Talk: Saving the games


This chart shows that while the World Outgames numbers have dropped down to the level of the EuroGames, the Sin City Shootout has sprung up and surpassed the Gay Games in recent participation. Credit: Roger Brigham
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Let's evoke the spirit of John Lennon and imagine an LGBT sports world in which there is no schism between the Gay Games and the World Outgames. Imagine every four years the global LGBT sports and cultural community comes together, while academics and activists discuss the state of human rights nearby. Imagine there is a greater diversity in participation and more balanced gender representation in the gathering than ever before. Imagine an unprecedented and unimpeded growth of the LGBT sports rights movement in Africa, South America, and Asia. Imagine the EuroGames once again occurring every three years out of four.

Team San Francisco, which has fought for that vision almost since the inception of the World Outgames, this weekend will discuss a proposal that would do precisely that. The proposal, drafted by the Team SF board, is a refinement of what the organization has been calling for publicly since 2009 and is in direct response to an official proposal submitted by a joint committee of Federation of Gay Games and Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association representatives that would effectively end both the Gay Games and the World Outgames. The Team SF counterproposal preserves both events while eliminating the decade-long rivalry.

The community town hall meeting on the future of the Gay Games, a quadrennial global LGBT sports and cultural festival that started in San Francisco in 1982, will be held at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood Street, Saturday, April 11. Guest speakers will include board members Shamey Cramer of the FGG and Greg Larocque of GLISA. Numerous honorary lifetime members of the FGG as well as Co-President Kurt Dahl of Chicago are also expected.

Full disclosure here, folks: I am one of those HLMs, a past volunteer and participant in the Gay Games, a board member of Team SF. I am a diehard sports junkie and have spent almost my entire professional career in and around sports. As such, I could not disagree more with the proposal recommended in the FGG-GLISA committee report and could not endorse more the Team SF proposal, which is logical, practical, and of greatest benefit to the global LGBT sports community.

At the end of February, the FGG sent a report to its member organizations on the latest talks between the FGG and GLISA toward having a single unified event. The committee issuing the report recommended the creation of an entirely new organization to replace the Gay Games and World Outgames and take over the awarding and running of the newly minted event. The report proposes starting a unified bid process and the first steps toward a new organization this month for a merged event in 2022.

I believe the proposal recommended by the report, although well intentioned, is overly ambitious, unwieldy, and sets back the original Gay Games mission rather than advances it. I think it comes from too many people on too many committees overthinking and over-engineering solutions for problems that do not exist. I think the easiest and most sensible path for a return to the one global event that existed in the 20 years after the founding of the Gay Games in 1982 until the advent of the World Outgames in 2006 can be taken with minimal impact on organizations and participants if the leaders of the two events can put their egos in check and accept reality.

Fortunately, the Team SF proposal does all that, very neatly and very simply.

Here are the key elements called for in the Team SF proposal:

1) Continue the Gay Games multicultural and sports festival, but cut the length of the total event and reduce the lavish opening and closing ceremonies.

2) Continue the World Outgames as a separately organized and funded human rights conference event to be held in conjunction with the Gay Games. This would in essence mirror the model already established in GLISA's Continental Outgames, such as the original North American event held in Calgary in 2007, which basically tacked its conference component onto the pre-existing sports component of the already well-established and accepted Calgary Stampede.

3) Encourage the EuroGames, which originally were held in all years that did not have a Gay Games but then ended up cutting back in years the World Outgames were held, to resume their previous three-years-out-of-four schedule.

4) Continue the Continental Outgames under the guidance of their GLISA regional organizations outside Western Europe and North America. This would help to bring together LGBT individuals in repressed, under-represented areas while not impeding the growth of the well established and organized EuroGames and events such as the Sin City Shootout and international single-sport championships.

Casual observers assume that because both are quadrennial, global LGBT sports and cultural festivals, the World Outgames and the Gay Games are pretty much the same thing – like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. That's one myth that has kept this ridiculous rivalry breathing. The reality is that they are radically different products with different missions and visions – Gay Games policies and decisions are made by sports and cultural representatives and strict checks have been implemented in hosts' party and ceremony plans, whereas the World Outgames surrender such decisions to host organizations and insist that human rights, which the Gay Games advance through sports and culture, must be advanced through conferences and workshops.

When Montreal organizers pulled out of plans to host Gay Games VII and established the Outgames, they focused much of their concern on the desire for host autonomy. The FGG, having seen the multimillion disasters that resulted from budget decisions made by past hosts, wanted to be able to keep those decisions in check and have a stronger say for the sports and cultural organizations.

Animus has marked much of the talks between GLISA and the FGG through the years. Despite the outward Kumbaya vibe of their current proposal, there remain vast gulfs of difference between the two organizations over such things as how host cities are selected and by whom, who makes budget cut decisions, how revenues are split, and so on.

But although the supposed rivalry between the two events has caused a great deal of angst and distraction for the two organizations, there really is not much competition between the two.

Reality is that the World Outgames have not cut into Gay Games participation numbers so much as they have displaced the EuroGames. Reality is that the biggest "competition" for registrants the Gay Games now face is the rapidly growing annual Sin City Shootout in Las Vegas, which drew more athletes this year than the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland did.

Now, if you are a typical artist or athlete, you really don't care about all of this behind-the-scenes politics: you just want to get out there to perform or compete. So I won't dull your minds by harping any longer about the myriad congresses and caucuses and committees that are called for in the GLISA-FGG proposal that would kill the Gay Games and Outgames. Instead, let me point out what makes the Team SF proposal a win-win.

First, it would free up the FGG and GLISA to concentrate on doing what they do best – and open the door for them to do those things better than they have before. The Gay Games are remarkable for how much control LGBT sports individuals and organizations have in the years leading up to the event and during the actual games themselves, and that has led to a diversity of opportunities and a diversity of athletes. But goals in inclusion of underrepresented minorities, lower-income individuals and younger athletes have never been reached and neither has gender parity. Not looking over their shoulders at a competing World Outgames will allow the FGG to focus on those goals.

The World Outgames have won great praise for the conferences it has held – but has been an unmitigated and worsening disaster as far as sports are concerned. Brackets have been collapsed, sports have been dropped or combined, tournaments have been eliminated – and those decisions have been made by profit-concerned hosts, not by LGBT sports organizations representatives. By eliminating the sports, cultural, and ceremony components of the World Outgames, and concentrating on running a separately organized and funded World Outgames human rights conference to be held in conjunction with the Gay Games sports and cultural festival, GLISA will be able to tap into other grant and funding sources and not have to deal with sports. There have been promising results from GLISA's Continental Outgames in the Australian-Southeast Asia area, and GLISA would be free to build on those successes in underserved areas such as South America and Africa, where their sports, cultural, and conference programs stand a better chance of bringing together a "critical mass" of participants.

Both the Gay Games and the World Outgames currently are becoming prohibitively expensive, which in the long run would threaten not just their raw registration numbers, but more importantly would curtail the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, and low-income individuals. Recently both events have done a better job of cutting back on the extravagance of opening and closing ceremonies, but they need to do more to cut down on participants' expenses. The Gay Games should look at adopting a five-day format and make the opening and closing events more focused on participants, not spectators. This is critical if either event wishes to avoid the fate of being strictly a big sports-themed pride party for rich white boys.

Big winners in the Team SF proposal would be the athletes and artists themselves. The Sin City model, in which sports are responsible for their own budgets, venues, and policies, comes closer to the Gay Games than the Outgames in giving control of events to LGBT athletes. The Gay Games are able to take that on the road and bring that input to new hosts around the globe, and they have been able to make sure the mission is focused on inclusivity. Along the way, provincial attitudes are changed in mainstream sports organizations through the interaction with LGBT sports groups.

But the biggest winners would be the EuroGames, the Gay Games, and the World Outgames themselves. The EuroGames would get back the event opportunities they have lost since the advent of the Outgames. The legacies of the Gay Games and Outgames would be preserved and continue to grow.

Questions? Concerns? Come on out Saturday and air them. This Saturday, let's evoke the spirit of Gay Games founder Tom Waddell and rally around a solution to carry the movement forward.

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