Sunday 20 January 2013

On Track to the Outgames

Following last year’s marathon series on the Olympics you probably don’t want to hear any more about sport! But this year is one of the big years for lgbt sport with the 3rd World Outgames taking place in Antwerp in July and August.

The Outgames originated in controversy but has emerged as a worthy companion to the Gay Games. Let’s get the controversial origins over with first before we look at the sport.

There are still many people around who were involved in the events. Because of this I think there is too much personal opinion and emotion influencing both sides of the argument and their version of what happened. It’s a difficult task for any historian to please all the people all the time. Even Carolyn Symons, author of “The Gay Games: A History” (Routledge, 2010) had to admit defeat when trying to reconcile conflicting views of the split, and I know that whatever I write will upset someone from either one or the other side.

In 2001 the 2006 Gay Games were awarded to Montréal, Canada. By the beginning of the century the Gay Games were becoming a major international sporting event, regardless of the sexuality of the athletes. This was helped by open participation and support of some of the world’s top lgbt sportspeople, including openly out Olympians, as well as major sponsorship, celebrity involvement in ceremonies, and support from politicians.

The first Gay Games of the 21st century, those on Sydney 2002, were a sporting success but a financial failure. There were various factors affecting this and not everything can be laid at the door of the organising committee or the FGG. Because of these factors the FGG decided to exercise more direct control over budgets and non-sporting cultural elements of future games. They also decided to downscale competitor numbers to be more on a par with the Olympic Games’ usual 10,500 target.

This was the background to the split that occurred in 2004.

The original Montréal bid committee had changed since winning the Gay Games. Support had also been received from the city’s leading tourism organisation and a significant amount of funding came from the government. There were too many non-lgbt fingers in the pie looking after their own interests who weren’t going to let anyone take any of their bit of the pie away. This left little room for negotiation. Montréal 2006’s plans didn’t fit in with the new direction taken by the FGG. This was clear at the 2003 FGG Board meeting.

The Board wanted a scaled down version of Montréal’s plans with fewer paid staff and more volunteer organisers. As well as budget, they also wanted more control over marketing and sponsorship agreements.

The Montréal 2006 committee had been sold on being presented as centrepiece of Tourism Montréal’s own aim of promoting the city on the world lgbt tourist map. Were they more interested in the money that would come into the city than the opportunity for lgbt athletes to compete in a non-discriminatory environment? It’s a political ploy that is played out all around the world, even here in Nottingham.

That was the situation in 2003 – the FGG were not willing to let Montréal 2006 organise the Gay Games based on their winning bid, and Montréal were not willing to let the FGG turn it into a much more limited event. The FGG were looking to secure a financial future for the games, and Montréal was looking to provide the biggest and best lgbt sporting event they knew they could produce. Both sides had common ground, but it was the differences which seemed insurmountable.

Negotiations failed to reach agreement and a split was inevitable. The FGG cancelled all contracts with Montréal 2006. What concerned those outside both organisations was the overtly political point-scoring both sides engaged in and whether the split would effect the lgbt community as well.

What the Montréal 2006 team had in it’s favour was an experienced, high-profile, lgbt sporting hero to put it’s case – Mark Tewksbury. An Olympic swimming champion and member of the Olympic athlete’s commission, Mark had significant involvement in a major sporting organisation. He was aware of the challenges his negotiating team had against a large body like the FGG.

Mark had come out in 1998, the same year he led calls for the International Olympic Committee to deal with corruption in their bidding process after it was discovered that several IOC members had received “gifts” in exchange for voting for Salt Lake City’s bid to host the 2002 Winter games. Mark was an outspoken critic of the IOC and left the athlete’s commission in protest. His criticism, however, was not unheeded and the IOC changed its bidding process. His role in the promotion of the first World Outgames was crucial to its success.

In January 2004 the Montréal 2006 team organised a conference to discuss the general direction of international lgbt sport. It looked at the IOC, the FGG and other sporting organisations, taking what they considered the best points from each and building a new vision for the future.

The following March this conference met again and formed the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (GLISA). They negotiated new contracts with the Montréal 2006 team to organise Rendez-Vous Montréal, a sporting and cultural event that included the first World Outgames. Mark Tewksbury was elected it’s co-president.

In the meantime, the FGG reopened the bidding process for it’s 2006 games. Losing bids from 2001 were invited to resubmit them, adapting them to fit the new vision of the FGG, and the games were awarded to Chicago.

The Chicago games stuck with the dates originally allocated to Montréal because athletes had geared themselves up specifically to reach peak performance at that event. The Montréal Outgames also bore this in mind, and decided to programme their event two weeks after the Chicago games ended, thereby still catching a lot of athletes at high performance levels. Some athletes competed at both events. Now that two lgbt sporting festivals were being held within one month in 2006 there were fears that one would overshadow the other as athletes had to decide which games they would concentrate their efforts.

With the controversial origins over the sport could begin. Next time I’ll take a look at the first World Outgames proper. Because there is not yet an official history (or an attempt at one, as far as I can find) of the Outgames I have based most of my research on the reports by Cyd Zeigler from

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