Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 4 - A Torch

Last Time : German athlete 7) Otto Peltzer competed at the 1928 Olympics at which 8) Renée Sintenis won a bronze medal, and at which games was the grandfather of 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, winner of 4 gold medals at the Gay Games, founded by 10) Tom Waddell.

10) Tom Waddell (1937-1987) competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and acted as team physician to the Saudi Arabian team at the Munich Olympics in 1976. He was a decathlete, and this provides another link to 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, because Jacques won a decathlon gold medal at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. The founding of the Gay Games by Tom Waddell has been covered before on this blog (just click on "Gay Games" in the labels list), so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Tom himself competed at the first Gay Games in 1982.

The Gay Games were originally billed as the Gay Olympics until the US Olympic Committee objected and successfully banned the use of the word “Olympic” from the Gay Games. This setback didn’t stop the games from becoming bigger (in terms of competitors) than the Olympics.

Looking at the years in which the first Gay Games were held (1982 and 1986) it becomes clear that they occurred at the start of the AIDS crisis. The games were a direct result of Tom’s aim to show that gay men and women can be fit and healthy and compete in sport on the same level as straight athletes. The emergence of AIDS made this aim even more important. There was a lot more homophobia in sport in the 1980s than there is now.

Unfortunately, by 1982 and 1986 many gay men had contracted and been diagnosed with HIV. Many talented and promising lgbt athletes (amateur and professional) were lost to the disease, and their absence from later Gay Games was felt deeply, not least of all being the death of Tom Waddell himself in 1987.

Before I continue on the theme of HIV I want to skip back to 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, who brings our next name into the link - 11) Tim Sullivan (b.1961).

When Jacques was living in the UK he played with the King’s Cross Steelers, the world’s first, purposely-formed, lgbt rugby club. 11) Tim Sullivan has been the Chair of the club since 2009, and during that time they have successfully defended their Union Cup European championship title right up to the present year.

An Olympic connection comes in 2012 when Tim was chosen as one of the torch relay runners. His nomination specifically mentioned his role in championing lgbt inclusion in sport and the community, and to the King’s Cross Steelers in particular. Running through the London suburb of Havering on 22nd July 2012, just 5 days before the London Olympic opening ceremony, Tim became one of over a dozen lgbt torch bearers chosen for their contribution to the lgbt community.

London 2012 was the most inclusive torch relay as far as the lgbt community is concerned but it wasn’t the first to feature openly gay runners. And we go back to South Africa for our next link.

12) Shaun Mellors (b.1965) connects to all the previous 3 names. Like 11) Tim Sullivan he has run with the Olympic flame. Like 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech he is from South Africa and has competed in the Gay Games. And as Gay Games founder 10) Tom Waddell had before him, Shaun has HIV.

Shaun was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. He declared his HIV status openly during a campaign by the South African government, but like many others like him, the stigma associated with the disease led to him losing his job. Since then Shaun has become one of the leading South African AIDS educators and campaigners.

One repercussion of the early AIDS crisis was the imposition of international travel restrictions for people with HIV. This was to effect Shaun most deeply when he travelled to the US to take part in the Gay Games in New York in 1994. He refused to answer the question about having a communicable disease on his visa application. The US government had granted special waivers to HIV+ athletes who attended the games. When the immigration authorities read an interview where Shaun admitted he didn’t declare his HIV status they deported him.

When Shaun applied for another visa a year later to attend an AIDS conference he was turned down because the authorities said he obtained his previous visa fraudulently. Luckily, colleagues in the White House AIDS Program negotiated a special waver for him. The travel ban was repealed in 2008, far too late for many.

In 2004 Shaun Mellors was chosen to run with the Athens Olympic torch through Cape Town on 12th June. Of the 60 relay runners in that city that day Shaun was one of 5 who were nominated specifically for their contribution to HIV/AIDS research or campaigns. One of the others was 13) Prudence Mabele.

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