When the first Gay Games were held in 1982 in San Francisco with a little over a thousand participants, few could have envisioned how large these Olympics for the GLBT community would grow over the next 20 years. Fewer still could have imagined that in the summer of 2006, we would see not one but two sets of games.
It wasn’t planned this way. The 2006 Gay Games had been awarded to the city of Montreal, whose planning committee balked at the level of oversight desired by the Federation of Gay Games, leading the Montreal organizers to walk away and form their own athletic competition, the Outgames. In response, the FGG reopened bidding and, in March 2004, awarded the games to the city of Chicago.
Montreal scheduled its games for July 30 through August 5, putting the Chicago planners in a bind. Explains Kevin Boyer, co–vice chair of Gay Games Chicago: “We had to take a lot of things into consideration. August was pretty tough for us in general. We definitely did not want to have our event happening at the same time or overlapping the events in Montreal. That was an important piece. We have a 2 1/2-million-person Air & Water Show in the city in the early part of August. The North Halsted Merchants put on what’s called Market Days in Chicago, which is a huge street festival in our community, and it’s very important to the businesses. We didn’t want to have it happen at the same time, ’cause that’s another 350,000 people just along the Halsted strip.” Not that early summer scheduled any better: “We’d end up conflicting with Pride festivals throughout the world,” Boyer says. And any other time of year simply falls outside to o many people’s vacation options, particularly teachers’. So Chicago’s week-long Gay Games kick off July 15, leaving a scant week between its closing and Montreal’s opening.
“The really best athletes have to pick. And that’s the tragedy,” sighs Ruth Gursky, a runner affiliated with Team New York, a nonprofit organization that connects people with GLBT-inclusive sporting groups and activities. She’s one of many local athletes who have faced a decision: go to Chicago, Montreal, or both. In her case, “there were athletic and political issues.” Having a long and productive history with them, “my allegiances are to the Gay Games,” she says, adding that she supports and may yet compete in both. The challenge is that she’s a half-marathon runner, and the grueling 13-mile event normally requires from her a month of recovery time, not the week available next month.
Cyd Zeigler, a sports journalist as well as an athlete, had an easier decision than most: His first-choice event, flag football, was not offered by the Outgames, so he committed to playing football in Chi-Town. As his work with gay-athletics website outsports.com demands his presence at both games, though, he plans to enter in an event, most likely swimming, in Montreal. Zeigler is sanguine about both games’ prospects: “Certainly, most people are going to have to choose between the two, so the level of competition might be a little less, but you have to consider that the most attended Gay Games had 14,000 people. Both of these events are going to have at least 12,000 [each].”
As a title closer for mortgages who sets his own schedule, Ray Stankes has the luxury of doing both sets of games if he wants. But as a hockey player for the New York Wizards, his plans hinged on those of his teammates, who overwhelmingly favored Montreal. Fellow Wizard David Benaym described the city as “hockey-wise, a much, much better experience,” adding that Canada has long been “a huge part of the hockey world.” So Stankes acquiesced while noting that his local league, the New York City Gay Hockey Association (NYCGHA), has played all over the U.S.A. and Canada, including Montreal numerous times, but never in Chicago.
For some, one city offers something the other does not. Christian West, the president of Team New York, is an avid bowler, though he jokes that he’d rather participate in the luge: “It’s the only sport I can do on my back.” Knowing regional preferences, he opted for the bowling haven of the Midwest over Montreal’s largely untested lanes.
Both cities are reasonably close to New York and offer high-end athletic facilities (Montreal’s being Olympics tested), vibrant nightlifes, and the opportunity to compete with thousands of like-minded athletes. But to visit both, many participants find, is a fiscal impossibility: registration fees of roughly $200 to $300, flights to either destination running about the same, hotels, car rentals, meals, and entertainment adding up to the point where, as NYCGHA communications and recruitment director Jeff Adams observes, “you’re looking at a sizable chunk of vacation budget.”
Adams laments the choice he and others were forced into. “I know there are people who are doing both,” he acknowledges, “but it’s hard to get a week off, and then be home a week, and then get another week off from work.” Stankes similarly feels that the schism has done a disservice to gay sports. His involvement has gone a long way toward breaking down stereotypes (“You can’t be gay, you play hockey!”), and a unified Gay Games, he feels, could have continued this effect. “A whole speaks louder than two” divided games, and the split “shows divisions in the community,” he argues. On the other hand, competitors like West observe that the rivalry between the two cities has made both step up their games.
In the end, though, it may not matter much to the future of gay sports if a couple thousand people missed out on an opportunity this summer. “The importance of these events has diminished substantially in recent years, because there are more and more events like the Bingham Cup, like the Gay Super Bowl, than there ever have been,” Zeigler, ever the optimist, explains. “You have other events going on every year; you have organizations in cities doing work with athletes and with their communities constantly. And those are far more important than a quadrennial sporting event.”