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ADDED ON: 08/01/2021

Welcome to the ‘Gay Games,’ an alternative to the Olympics, where activism is encouraged and everyone’s an athlete

7/31/21 | CNN

Tom Waddell knew what to expect from an Olympics opening ceremony. He’d experienced one before as a decathlete at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He remembered the parade of athletes from around the world, proudly marching alongside their flags before an audience of thousands, cheering on their every move. His gay and lesbian friends in San Francisco, though, had never experienced an event as thrilling or moving as the opening ceremony. According to various archives, he wanted to share with them the awe and the connection he felt in that moment, and thought that maybe, while they basked in the glow of the applause, the rest of the country might recognize their humanity. And so Waddell created the Gay Games – then called the Gay Olympics, until the International Olympic Committee sued over the name. He saw his games as a vessel for change, a venue for activism and a celebration of LGBTQ inclusion. “The formula for success was visibility and identity,” Waddell said in an interview following the first Gay Games in 1982. “And both were right there on the field. We were visible, and we were identified. And what did people see? They saw healthy people, out there, doing something that everyone could understand. They were out there to compete and have fun – success. That’s what the first Gay Games were all about.” Waddell died in 1987, but the Gay Games continue to this day, growing into an international phenomenon since their first iteration. They draw over 10,000 athletes and sometimes seven or eight times as many spectators, said Shiv Paul, vice president of external relations for the Federation of Gay Games. They feature many of the same sports traditionally seen at the Summer and Winter Olympics – figure skating, track and field, diving – with additions like bowling, e-sports and dodgeball. You don’t have to be a professional athlete – even a proficient one – to compete in the Gay Games. You don’t even have to be gay. And unlike at the Olympics, activism is encouraged at the Gay Games, as it has been since the beginning when the HIV/AIDS crisis was ravaging LGBTQ communities. Above all, though, the Gay Games are an event for queer and trans people to gather safely, play sports they love and be themselves without fear of intolerance. The first Gay Games were held in San Francisco in 1982, where transmission of HIV had peaked among the city’s bustling gay community. The “epicenter” of HIV/AIDS cases was San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, where Waddell, who was also a physician, operated a private practice. Waddell was inspired by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who, at the 1968 Olympics that Waddell had attended, raised their fists in protest against racism after medaling in the 200-meter sprint. The Gay Games could be an act of protest then, too, Waddell decided, an event during which LGBTQ people could play the same sports they watched during the Olympics and achieve the same kind of glory he had at the 1968 Olympics. He also hoped that the Games would humanize LGBTQ people to spectators. “The games are really not about athletics,” Waddell said in an interview. “They’re about a statement on the quality of our lives.”

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