Sunday, July 23, 2006

Weak start, strong finish - Some feared disaster, but `it worked out fine'

THE GAY GAMES
Weak start, strong finish - Some feared disaster, but `it worked out fine'

By Josh Noel and Ray Quintanilla, Tribune staff reporters. RedEye reporter Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz contributed to this report
Published July 23, 2006

As a searing heat wilted Gay Games competitors early last week, things were looking dire at Washington Park: not enough water for the flag football teams. A volunteer barked into a cell phone, trying to get more but not getting far.

"She was screaming about how this wasn't acceptable," said Jim Buzinski, quarterback for the Los Angeles team that won the flag football gold medal. "Finally, after a half-hour they trucked in a bunch of water. It worked out fine."

In many ways, the situation sums up the weeklong Gay Games, which were to wrap up with closing ceremonies Saturday at Wrigley Field: Planning might not have been perfect, execution might have wobbled, but in the end, it wasn't bad at all.

An event that organizers had just two years to plan--and that some prominent local gay leaders opposed--came off without a last-minute cash infusion, unlike the last two Games, and without canceled events, as happened in 1994 in New York.

Though small gripes were common throughout the week--not enough water, sparse crowds, too spread out, not enough international flavor, overlong opening ceremonies--it was hard to find anyone who called the Games the disaster some had feared.

Instead, they said, Chicago was a gracious host, and incidents of intolerance were rare or nil, though 10 teenagers were arrested on the South Side for throwing bottles at Gay Games golfers in what officials said was not a hate crime. Protesters from various Christian-based organizations mostly served as a backdrop for amused competitors to pose for photos near banners reading "Homosexuality is sin."

Organizers said ticket sales of 10,000 to events throughout the week surpassed their expectations, and that they expect the Games to break even or generate a small surplus. The last four Games have all lost money.

"When you're in a place where there's 10,000 other gays and lesbians, you'd have to work real hard to screw something up like this," said Buzinski, who also attended the four previous Gay Games. "Difficulties happen at most Gay Games because you're mostly dealing with volunteers, but I think most people would say they had a great time."

Concerns about Chicago hosting the Games were mostly rooted in the fact that the Federation of Gay Games had initially awarded the event to Montreal. But after a contentious split, the bidding process was restarted in 2003, and Chicago was picked as host over Los Angeles. Organizers were left with two years instead of the normal four to prepare.

Montreal leaders, meanwhile, forged ahead with their own gay Olympic-style event, the OutGames, which begin July 29.

Some prominent local gay leaders, including Rick Garcia, director of Equality Illinois, feared two years wasn't enough time. But after attending opening ceremonies, he said the Games "were run in a well-dignified way."

Garcia and others credited Mayor Richard Daley for setting a tone of inclusion at the July 15 ceremonies at Solider Field when he declared support for "pride in the community" and "openness to all" in front of close to 30,000 people.

But Garcia's full approval of the Games awaits the final financial picture. Dennis Sneyers, founder of the group that lured the Games to Chicago, said he is "99 percent" sure the event will be left with a surplus, but that the numbers won't be tallied for about a month.

"Thank God for the city they were able to pull something off," Garcia said. "If there is a loss, who is going to pay for that loss?"

2 athletic records set

Two athletic records were set, albeit both obscure. Four swimmers from Team Florida set a U.S. Masters Swimming mark in the 400-meter medley relay for competitors whose combined age is 160 or older, and a team from New York set a similar record in the 200-meter mixed medley relay, also for teams 160-plus.

Though many athletes had no problem finding flaws in the Games, most gave the benefit of the doubt to any event that brings together so many gay athletes.

The triathlon was "pretty disorganized at the beginning," said Deb Rood, 37, of Forest Park, and the medal ceremony for that event was delayed four hours because of a problem with the results.

Still, "there was real good energy, and everyone was real excited to be there," Rood said. "I would say it took some of the sting out of the organization problems."

Mark Gill, 38, of Louisville, who helped coordinate the swimming events for more than 1,000 participants, said officials had to cobble together parts for a second timing machine. One side of the pool had a functioning clock, but the other did not.

By the time the events began, he and other volunteers had a clock in working order. "It took two days to get it together, but we did it," he said.

And Andy Rogers, 43, whose ice hockey team won the men's bronze medal, said competition seemed thin because the top Canadian teams will be skating instead at OutGames.

"It's a shame the split ever happened, because it really splits the community," he said, adding: "Maybe it's a sign that it's not just us against the world anymore. We're big enough to in-fight. Isn't that cool?"

Low international turnout

The lack of foreign athletes was a recurring complaint. Gay Games spokesman Kevin Boyer said about 2,500 international athletes attended, a low figure he pinned on athletes choosing the Canadian event in protest of the Iraq war and President Bush's politicization of gay marriage.

"The biggest disappointment was that this was much more an American games," Buzinski said. "It just lacked a certain spark, and that's because of the lack of international flavor."

Some events barely avoided mishap before coming out fine.

About five weeks before the Games kicked off, the cycling competition was on the verge of collapse, with no venue locked down for some of the races. Organizers hired John O'Connor, a partner in Chicago-based Urban Adventure Racing, to salvage the event, which wound up running as scheduled.

"It was a little tricky given the time frame," O'Connor said. "But it all worked."

Competitors said they found Chicago largely welcoming--no surprise for a city with a reputation as gay-friendly. Though easily identifiable by large ID badges worn around their necks--not to mention many were holding hands with people of the same sex--athletes said they felt nothing but warmth.

"I have to say, people in the city have treated us all very well," said Alan Brooks, 28, of Dublin, who played in the men's soccer tournament. "My friends and I rode the rail system here; we have taken the buses and ventured out during the evenings. This community has been very friendly and welcoming."

Chicago police spokeswoman Monique Bond said the department's civil rights unit was on standby but wasn't needed for any investigations. Ten teenagers were arrested Tuesday afternoon after they allegedly threw bottles at Gay Games golfers in Jackson Park, but Boyer said the victims, who were uninjured, told police no gay slurs were used.

Though some protesters traveled hundreds of miles to protest the Games, they seemed to have little impact on participants. The Illinois Family Institute staged a week of lectures in a downtown hotel room to state their case that homosexuality is immoral, but few people attended and no gay person was turned straight, said Executive Director Peter LaBarbera.

Though there were nearly 11,500 competitors, he called the Games a "colossal flop."

"Most of the people who aren't gay that I have talked to don't care about the Gay Games," he said. "Who cares about going to the Gay Games except the participants, their family members and the media?"

Former NFL running back David Kopay, who came out as gay in 1975 after retiring, said attendance isn't the point.

"Let's face it, some of the competitions aren't of a very high quality," he said. "It's about participation. In terms of people getting along and recognizing different skills and abilities, it was wonderful."

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jbnoel@tribune.com

rquintanilla@tribune.com

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