Thursday 8 August 2013

The Life of Dr. Tom - Part 1

While the Outgames are still in progress I thought it would be a good idea to look at the life of the founder of these lgbt sport festivals, Dr. Tom Waddell. It was his vision of a multi-sport festival to celebrate the health of the lgbt community at a time when AIDS was affecting so much of it that led to the eventual acknowledgement around the world, and within the community itself, that “gay men can do sport”. This 2-part article looks specifically at Tom’s medical career in relation to this.

Tom Waddell was always a keen sportsman. From an early age he excelled in gymnastics (his adoptive parents were acrobats). He made his college (American) football team and scored a decisive touchdown in an inter-college tournament which earned him a little fame. Further fame as a footballer was not for him, however, and he turned to track and field.

In 1960 Tom competed at the US decathlon championships and national trials for the Rome Olympics. He didn’t win a place on the national team – this time. In any case his intention at this stage was to become a doctor and he entered the New Jersey College of Medicine. During that time he continued to compete but found it, and his political activism, were getting in the way of his medical studies, and he was eager to become a practicing doctor.

That chance came in 1965 when he was accepted as an intern doctor at the Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. Later that year he volunteered for the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Alabama. This was where he began to talk to groups on health issues, including sexually transmitted diseases. What the experience taught him was a determination to fight for the healthcare of the more disadvantaged members of society and for human rights. This he began by returning to New York and working in detention centres and prisons.

The following year Tom got the call-up to join the US army. By this time he had accepted his homosexuality though kept it secret – this was pre-Stonewall. It was the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the policy whereby active servicemen would be discharged if proven or known to be gay.

Tom loved the military training and even volunteered to train as a paratrooper. It was the kind of macho lifestyle he always believed gay men were as equally capable of having as much as any straight man. He was no admirer of the camp, effeminate lifestyle that all gay men were depicted as being in the 1960s. This belief was pivotal in his creation of the Gay Games many years later.

Pursuing medicine was a bigger pull for Tom and he was accepted into the army’s course in global medicine outside Washington DC. What began to bother him when he got there was the knowledge that the course ended with a tour of duty in Vietnam during the height of the war there. Like a lot of Americans at the time, Tom registered as a conscientious objector. He was reassigned and, more significantly, assigned to the US Army’s Olympic Training Program.

Tom served as both team doctor and member of the US track and field team that began training for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He was 30 and the oldest member of the team, but he performed well at the Olympic trials, coming 3rd in the decathlon and earned his place as an Olympian. He went one better in Mexico City, moving up to 2nd place in the national rankings, though he only made 6th place in the Olympic decathlon final.

In an interview for an American magazine the next year he said he doubted he would make the 1972 Munich Olympics in Munich when he would be 34. As it happens, a knee injury stopped him from competing in the US Olympic trails. Instead Tom became an Olympic “official” as medical adviser to the US Olympic Committee. He had left the army, a decision taken partly because his open support of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Rights salute on the medal podium in Mexico City. Tom Waddell took up a senior residency at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

In 1974 he was offered the post of medical director at the Life Sciences Division of the Whitaker Corporation in Saudi Arabia. Being gay in an Arab country in the 1970s could be very dangerous, but Tom managed his personal and professional life to such a fine balance that he was later invited to become personal physician to a Saudi prince.

This royal connection and his setting up of the nation’s first sports programme led to Tom being appointed as the Olympic team doctor again, but this time for the Saudi Arabian team at the 1976 MontrĂ©al Olympics.
As far as the official games were concerned this was Tom’s last Olympic involvement. But it was his creation of an unofficial Olympics – the Gay Olympics – that was to bring such great joy and great trouble to him personally in the following decade. This will be chronicled in Part 2 of “The Life of Dr Tom” later in the month.

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