Friday, July 14, 2006


By Josh Noel
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published July 14, 2006

Let the Gaymes begin.

And let the tourist dollars flow, the North Halsted Street parties rage and the protests simmer.

The seventh Gay Games--called simply the Gaymes by those in the know--will begin Saturday with nearly 12,000 athletes marching into Soldier Field and will wrap up a week later with closing ceremonies at Wrigley Field.

In between, in 30 contests across the city and suburbs, gay former Olympians will compete alongside weekend warriors in a sprawling event that leaders take pride in its inclusion. Yes, there will be same-sex pairs figure skating and a "Pink Flamingo Aquatic Show," but fans can also watch decidedly more mainstream offerings, such as basketball, darts and bowling.

Since Chicago was awarded the Games in 2004, controversy has followed, including a major leadership shakeup and the opposition of some local gay leaders to hosting the event on short notice. Though skepticism quietly remains, organizers say they are ready and make rosy predictions of 100,000 participants, spectators and volunteers pumping as much as $80 million into the city.

City officials say the long-term payoff could be even greater. Touting Chicago this week as a gay-friendly city, Mayor Richard Daley also said the Games will serve as a test case in the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics--a chance to prove it can host a major athletic event spread across a broad area.

And Dorothy Coyle, director of the city Office of Tourism, said the Games represent a chance for Chicago to tap deeper into the lucrative gay and lesbian travel market.

For the athletes, the Gay Games are above all a chance to have fun in a comfortable environment.

"Every other nationality or ethnic group has their own competitions," said Marcia Hill, 48, competing in softball and organizing the women's flag football tournament. "It's an opportunity to get together with people of a similar background and compete."

Held every four years, the Gay Games were founded in San Francisco in 1982, and the United States last played host in 1994 in New York City. Though medals are given, quality of competition is not the main point. Registration, now closed, was open to anyone, gay or not, regardless of athletic prowess.

At sports villages across the city and suburbs, many events are free to spectators, but a few hot-ticket items--including the aquatic show and the two-day diving pass--are sold out.

Though the city has long been a gay beacon with its annual Pride Parade and International Mr. Leather competition, the Games could open the city to an even broader gay audience.

"It's an opportunity to show this city to a market like we haven't been able to do before," Coyle said. "We'll reap the benefits for a long time."

City's image could rise

Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based gay tourism and marketing firm, estimates that U.S. gays and lesbians spend $65 billion a year on travel. In a poll taken last year, Chicago was the seventh most popular U.S. city for gays and lesbians to visit, said Jerry McHugh, that company's manager of market research.

The Gay Games could further boost the city's standing as a gay attraction--a boon for any city because gays tend to travel and spend more, particularly on food and lodging, than straight people do, McHugh said.

"Our strength is that we're the traditional double income, no kids," he said. "And we treat travel as a primary expense."

The economic impact has already begun to be felt, said Art Johnston, co-owner of Sidetrack, a North Halsted Street bar in the heart of Boystown and a sponsor of the Games. On Thursday, the bar began opening at noon--three hours early--to accommodate an expected upturn in business.

Security people began noticing more out-of-state driver's licenses and foreign passports about a week ago, Johnston said. On a street flush with customers during the annual Pride Parade, there's no telling how much money local businesses will reap from the Games.

"Nobody really knows what it will be like because there is nothing to compare it to," said Johnston, who has "boosted supplies of everything" at Sidetrack and plans to pay plenty of overtime.

Still, the financial rewards are secondary to the other benefits of the Gay Games, said Johnston, a co-founder of Equality Illinois, a gay advocacy group.

"So you make some extra money one week or sell an extra 1,000 beers, but that's not what this is about," he said. "It's about community and coming together. None of us could do this kind of stuff alone, so it's great. We're expecting a great celebration."

Protesters plan campaign

Closely following the celebration as it unfolds will be the Illinois Family Institute, which plans to protest the Games with what it calls a "Love and Truth" campaign.

At the opening ceremonies and several events during the week, volunteers will pass out literature that portrays homosexuality as an unsafe, unwise and un-Christian choice, said executive director Peter LaBarbera. At Gay Games competitions, the literature will be accompanied by bottled water labeled with Scripture.

The group also plans to hold lectures at the Congress Plaza Hotel--one is titled "How to Love Your Gay or Lesbian Child Without Loving Their Behavior"--and distribute its literature outside a Halsted Street bathhouse.

"If we really didn't care about homosexuals, we wouldn't be trying to stop them from going into a [place] where there are all sorts of dangerous behaviors," LaBarbera said. "We want to reach out and let people know there is an alternative viewpoint if they want to hear it."

If coming face to face with the Illinois Family Institute is the biggest challenge for the Gay Games next week, many supporters will be relieved.

Though Gay Games spokesman Kevin Boyer said the Games have amassed $9.5 million in cash and $10 million of in-kind support, some observers have worried that these Games won't have the money to pull off their events, let alone make the profit Boyer has predicted.

A notorious money loser, the Games last made a profit in 1986, and at least once have required a last-minute financial bailout from the host city's government. Boyer said this week that the Chicago group staging these Games has made "significant changes in the business model," but worries persist.

Concerns that there wouldn't be enough time to get enough sponsors and plan the Games are rooted in the fact that Chicago was tapped as host only after the Federation of Gay Games had a falling-out with its original choice, Montreal.

"The only possible drawback is if the Games are not run successfully and if they don't meet their financial goals," Johnston said. If that happened, "the fact we have such a world-class city is not what people will remember when they leave here."

The answer begins to come Saturday.



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