LGBT+ History: Looking back at the Gay Olympic Games

Founded in 1982 in San Francisco, the Gay Olympics (now the Gay Games) saw 1,300 queer athletes compete across 16 events in what was to become the largest LGBT sports event on the globe. By ’86, the games had ballooned to 3,500 participants across 17 sports.

The purpose of the games, according to the Federation of Gay Games is “to foster and augment the self-respect of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and all sexually-fluid or gender-variant individuals (LGBT+) throughout the world and to promote respect and understanding from others, primarily by organising and administering the international quadrennial sport and cultural event.”

With 11,000 registered athletes in the 1994 Gay Games in New York, the events beat the Barcelona 1992 Olympics’ jock-count of 10,568 and was/is pivotal in the emerging mainstream awareness of queer issues in sport. Held on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the ‘unity’ themed games saw celebrity speakers such as Sir Ian McKellen celebrate the diversity of the events.

The event organisers were sued by the International Olympic Committee, due to the rights of the word Olympics being exclusive for the United States Olympic Committee following the first games in 1982. Activists such as Jeff Sheehy – former president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club, called the lawsuit out on the basis that it was build up on homophobia, not brand infringement. The Nebraska Rat Olympics, the Police Olympics, the Junior Olympics and the Special Olympics did not and have not faced similar lawsuits.

Athlete, heroic LGBT activist and founder of the games, Tom Waddell, wrote in the Gay Games II handbook that: “The message of these games goes beyond validating our culture. The Gay Games were conceived as a new idea in sport based on inclusion rather than exclusion. Since anyone from anywhere is welcome to participate in this event, we transcend the traditional problems of ageism, sexism, and racism, and just as importantly, nationalism. There are no competing world ideologies in these games.”

Tom, who had advanced AIDS at the time of the lawsuit, expressed confusion as to why himself and San Francisco Arts and Athletics Inc., questioning “how any committee can take a word that has been in use for 2500 years and decide nobody else can use it for their games.”

Opening ceremony of the Gay Games in Ohio, 2014.

Academic and author of The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, Brian Pronger states that “the whole emphasis on competition is something that has destroyed mainstream sport. I think that declaring gold, silver, and bronze is hierarchical and puts a stress on competition that is counterproductive.”

“It should be promoting the eroticism of physical activity. And I don’t simply mean, you know, sex stuff, which I think is fine too, but it should be promoting the beauty of the moving body and how it feels to move and exert yourself.”

Which is where the Gay Games triumph, by not pushing for personal bests and declaring fourth placed participants as losers, but celebrating inclusion and the simultaneous break down of stereotype and stigma.

The next Gay Games will be held in Paris in 2018. The city shortlist for the 2022 candidate cities will be announced on March 1st.

Feature Image: Swimmers at the Gay Olympics, 1982.

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