This article charts the medical influence of Dr. Tom Waddell after his involvement in the Olympics as an athlete and team doctor finished in 1976.
In 1980 Tom saw, just by chance, television coverage of the Gay Men’s Bowling Tournament. He was excited that images of gay men were being portrayed as real athletes. It sparked his vision of a multi-sport festival like the Olympics in which lgbt athletes from across America and around the world could compete together. It would show the world that gay men and lesbian women did not follow the stereotypes that the straight world had given them.
It was a vision aimed at the lgbt community itself as much as the wider world. Tom wanted to change the stereotypes of gay people not being fit enough to do competitive sport. And so the Gay Olympics came into Tom’s mind. He hoped that all groups, genders, ages, races and nationalities would come together and achieve great personal goals.
The controversy and subsequent battle with the US Olympic Committee over the use of the word “Olympic” is mentioned briefly here. My purpose here is to look at Tom’s association with the Gay Games/Olympics and the promotion of health.
The success of the first Gay Games in 1982 gave Tom the motivation to inspire and develop his idea further. A new organisational structure was set up to spread the work load across committees to relieve some of the pressure from Tom and the original committee members. But a deadly cloud began to cast a shadow.
The spectre of AIDS was becoming known around the world, and if previous stereotypes weren’t enough to overcome a new one appeared – the misguided belief that gay men were a deadly health risk to the rest of the world. Tom’s medical knowledge and the support he got from the Gay Games committees was fundamental in keeping the games alive during this dark period. Tom’s determination to show the world a healthy gay image was now to be promoted to the gay community itself. Many parts of the community was pessimistic about it’s future, and Tom hoped that his message of healthy living, safe sex and responsible behaviour would be heard. It was in this background that the second Gay Games went ahead in 1986.
Tom wrote a column in a popular gay magazine. Using his medical knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases and his understanding of AIDS he wrote regularly on the news and research that was being carried out, and explained in layman’s terms what it meant. He urged the community not believe every claim and sensationalist scare story being published in the mainstream media. What’s more, Tom was not afraid to tell the gay community to change it’s attitude to sex.
The Gay Games were among the few non-medical organisations to outreach to people with HIV/AIDS. Tom had seen the misery of alienation that illnesses can cause in communities already marginalised – he has seen it in the black community in Alabama and among prisoners in New York. Even though people with HIV/AIDS may not have been able to compete fully as athletes, the Gay Games also encouraged them to take part on committees, as performers at ceremonies, or as stewards. This ethic of inclusion has been seen most prominently in recent Olympics where volunteers have been acknowledged as major factors in the success of the games.
Gay Games II was held in 1986. The number of athletes was more than double that of the first, and with more international athletes than ever. It also attracted attention from national media. However, the main emphasis of the reports were more on the spread of AIDS than sport. Athletes themselves expressed time and time again to the media that they were capable of taking responsibility for their health, even those who had AIDS who (in those days when few survived) were determined to “live” as long as possible.
One man can be said to be the epitome of this self-belief – Tom Waddell himself. He was diagnosed with AIDS before the start of Gay Games II but decided to wait until after the games ended before he announced his status. It would have created a distraction from the games if he revealed it earlier. As he said himself, “The Gay Games are not about AIDS. They are about health”.
Tom’s final years were mixed with joy and anguish. Joy at the success of the Gay Games and it’s continuation. Joy are becoming a father to Jessica, whose mother Sara Lewenstein was a member of the Gay Games I Women’s Outreach committee. Joy at Sara becoming his wife. But anguish over the US Olympic Committee’s legal challenge over the name “Gay Olympics”. Anguish at the court case dragging on while his health deteriorated. Anguish that the USOC had placed a lien on his home depriving his daughter of an inheritance.
But let’s not finish on a sad note. Tom Waddell died on 11 July 1987, leaving a sporting legacy that flourishes. Without it would we have seen such interest in lgbt athletes at London 2012 or a Pride House? Would anyone else had fought so hard through the AIDS crisis, bearing in mind him medical background, to continue his dream? The lien placed on his home was lifted after Tom’s death. Sara and Jessica continue Tom’s legacy with their involvement in the Gay Games. Even though the organisation of the Federation of Gay Games has changed a lot since the first games in 1982, Tom Waddell can join Baron Pierre de Coubertin as being called the father of a global sporting movement that has influenced and continues to inspire athletes for more than a generation.