Saturday, 20 October 2012

Tom's Games at 30.

On 28th August 1982, 1,350 lgbt athletes (and a handful of straight ones) met in a stadium in San Francisco to compete in a range of sports in the first international competition of its kind. This was the first Gay Games. This weekend the Federation of Gay Games is celebrating the 30th anniversary with lots of events.

As well as being the 30th anniversary of the first Gay Games 2012 is also the 75th anniversary of the birth of the games’ founder Tom Waddell on 1st November. It is also the 25th anniversary of his death this year so I thought it more appropriate to mark the Gay Games anniversary by looking at the life of Waddell.

Tom suffered from abuse from an early age. Born Thomas Flubacher in New Jersey in 1937 his childhood was dogged by prejudice around his German surname throughout World War II and afterwards. In the 1950s his parents split up and Tom went to live with the Waddell family who adopted him, thereby changing his name to theirs and removing one obstacle to a happy adolescence.

Tom was already aware of his sexual preferences when he entered his teenage years and his life followed the usual pattern of a closeted American Catholic at the time – confusion, denial, guilt, acceptance.

The Waddells encouraged Tom to take up gymnastics, and he competed in the gymnastics and football teams while at college. But it was a medical career Tom was aiming for, not a sporting one. In the end he got both.

It was while attending the New Jersey College of Medicine he was drafted into the US Army. After the army recognised his status as a conscientious objector Tom became assistant director of the Global Medicine programme. More significantly he was appointed team doctor of the US army’s Olympic Training Programme in the same year. At 34 years old he became the oldest member of the 1969 US Olympic team going to Mexico City.

Tom’s Olympic experiences are told here, and here. His creation of the Gay Games is told here.

One of Tom’s main aims in creating the Gay Games was to present to the world a community which was healthy and as enthusiastic about sport as straight people, which was generally the opposite to what straight people thought. The AIDS crisis had just got a grip and was threatening to destroy the few positive attitudes towards the lgbt community that had been established since the start of the Gay Right movements in the 1960s. Many people started saying AIDS was gay men’s punishment from God for being promiscuous. Tom Waddell was one of the few who was determined to prove to the world that stereotyping gay men as sex mad, unhealthy, camp wimps was wrong.

Unfortunately, just before the second Gay Games in 1986 Tom Waddell had himself been diagnosed with AIDS. He decided not to make it public until after the games finished. He died on 11th July 1987.

Tom Waddell’s vision lives on in both body and spirit. The Federation of Gay Games was formally established in 1989 and has organised the succeeding games. The spirit behind the games lives on with Tom’s wife and daughter. In 1981 Tom met a lesbian athlete on the first Gay Games committee called Sara Lewenstein. They both had a wish to become parents and they married in 1985. Their daughter Jessica, born in 1983, and her mother Sara are still involved with the Federation of Gay Games, and long may they continue to do so.

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