Wednesday 18 April 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Between the 1980 and 1984 Olympics a new Olympics emerged. It was the brainchild of US Olympian Tom  Waddell. After his participation as team doctor for the Saudi team in 1976, Tom returned home to San Francisco where he and his boyfriend came out publicly in the October 1976 issue of “People” magazine. They received much abuse from fellow Olympians, but it gave Tom the determination to show that gay men CAN do sport.

It was while attending a gay bowling match that the spark of an idea of the Gay Olympics occurred to Tom. He travelled around the US drumming up support and enthusiasm and very soon a group was formed to arrange the first games in 1982. But before they could begin the US Olympic Committee sued the group over the use of the word “Olympic” (where have I hear that before?). Tom protested that they had ever objected to the Police Olympics, the Dog Olympics, or the Porn Olympics, so why pick on the Gay Olympics?

Legal proceedings started, and with less than 19 days before the games began all references to “Olympics” had to be blacked out of posters and publicity. The legal battle was to last until 1987 by which time the Gay Olympics had been renamed the Gay Games. From such an unpromising start grew a movement which is still going strong, and still holds the world record for the most competitors in a multi-sport event (over 4,000 more than the biggest Olympics).

In this 30th anniversary years of the Gay Games I’ll bring more of its history in August.

Two Winter Olympics for the price of one now. At the 1984 Sarajevo and 1988 Calgary games the same 3 gay ice skaters appeared – Rob McCall, Brian Orser and Brian Boitano.

Rob McCall was a pairs figure skater who was Canadian champion 7 years running from 1981. Performing with Tracy Wilson in the Sarajevo Olympics of 1984 Rob won an Olympic Diploma for their 8th place. At the Calgary games inn 1988 they took the bronze medal.

In 1990 Rob was diagnosed with AIDS. He kept this secret because US law at that time banned anyone with HIV/AIDS from entering the USA and Rob wanted to continue touring in ice shows and competitions. Rob died in 1991 aged 33. Even as his health deteriorated he planned an AIDS benefit called “For Skate the Drama”. It was also to become his tribute event.

At that time there was a lot of denial within the sport. Many skaters either disbelieved there were many HIV+ skaters, or chose to ignore what effect AIDS would have on their sport. With major skaters dying of AIDS more and more skaters chose to show their open support by appearing at the AIDS benefit.

One skater who performed at “For Skate the Drama” was American Brian Boitano. In 1978 he had won a bronze medal at the World Junior championships. One place behind was Canadian Brian Orser. The two were to become Olympic rivals, both competing in Sarajevo in 1984 and Calgary in 1988.

Boitano won silver in 1984 while Orser took an Olympic Diploma in 5th place. At the World Championships over the next 4 years they dominated the medals, alternating gold and silver positions 3 years running. At the 1988 Olympics the media hyped up the “Battle of the Brians”. Going into the final free skating section the 2 Brians were effectively tied – whoever won this section won gold. Orser made one mistake and missed a jump, giving Boitano the gold medal.

No doubt this was a disappointment for Orser. But at least he had had the honour of carrying his national flag at the head of the home team in the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony. Orser’s participation in Olympic skating has continued. At the 2012 Vancouver games Orser coached the gold medallist Yu-Na Kim.

Boitano’s career, however, went in several directions. Sports-wise he returned to the Olympics in 1994. On the tv he earned cult status in caricature form on “South Park”; he won an Emmy for his role in “Carmen on Ice”; and has fronted 2 series of his own cookery programme.

Before we leave the 1988 Calgary games there’s some more lgbt names to mention. Former Olympian Brian Pockar was artistic director of the closing ceremony at which k d lang made her first Olympic performance, and Nat Brown was the coach and head technician for the US ski team.

I’ll return to the warmer climes of the summer games next times with a look at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

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