Friday, August 25, 2006

Chicago Saved the Gay Games

Chicago Saved the Gay Games
By Jim Buzinski
Copyright by
Augustr 8, 2006

Chicago saved the Gay Games and Montreal proved there is a market for more than one gay and lesbian sportsfest. Both can be judged successes. But the split in the gay sports movement continues.

That's the conclusions I've reached after the most intense concentration of gay sporting events in history – two events a week apart that drew thousands of athletes, few of them crossovers.

Predictions about disaster with two competing events so close together proved to be false. Gay Games VIII in Chicago and the first Outgames in Montreal were fierce competitors, but each seemed to meet their targets and the vast majority of participants and spectators left with smiles on their faces. Neither event was perfect, but based on economic criteria, both events put the last four Gay Games to shame.

"We still confidently project that Gay Games VII will end with a modest surplus," Gay Games co-vice chair Kevin Boyer told Outsports. If this turns out to be the case, that's an amazing accomplishment considering Chicago had two fewer years than normal to prepare for the event, and that the last four Gay Games lost money; Amsterdam in 1998 and Sydney in 2002 were such financial basket cases, that each came within weeks of being canceled.

The situation appears equally rosy in Montreal. "There is no deficit on the horizon," Louise Roy, Outgames chief executive officer, told the Montreal Gazette. That's hedging a bit from earlier claims that the event had already broken even months ago, but the total number of registrants was less than organizers had counted on. Still, just breaking even would be a success.

There will be debate over which event was "better," a totally subjective measurement that can be made only by people who attended both. I went to Chicago and was unable to make Montreal, but what I gathered is that Montreal had more of a big-event atmosphere, with a lot more signage and an Olympic-style village. In contrast, Chicago was flat in terms of atmosphere, mainly due to the lack of foreign athletes, and seemed too much the American Games.

On the other hand, the athletic competition appeared stronger in Chicago for most sports, owing to the large numbers of Americans in the top sports. For example, a gay water polo tournament without West Hollywood (as was the case in Montreal) is hard to take seriously. Even the winners of the gold medal in men's basketball in Montreal considered that tournament a joke with no U.S. teams. In soccer, the internationally designated championships were in Chicago, with only one elite team going to Montreal. Sadly, the best soccer teams from Germany declared a pox on both and did not attend, so it's not clear a true champion was crowned in either city. And swimming isn't quite the same without the large influx of elite U.S. swimmers. Of all the key sports, only rowing appeared to be of a clearly higher caliber in Montreal.

In the end, Chicago's achievement was more impressive. It started from scratch, with two fewer years to plan amid a major rift in the gay sports community and pulled off a Games that might make some money (or break even). Montreal had a two-year head start on its planning, $5 million in government money and, because it originally won the Gay Games bid, whatever logistical and organizational expertise it gleaned prior to the split.

My look at both events and what the future holds:

Gay Games

It's not a stretch to say Chicago saved the Gay Games, the way Los Angeles saved the Olympics in 1984. The 1976 Olympics nearly bankrupted Montreal and the 1980 Moscow Games were overshadowed by the U.S. boycott. It took Los Angeles, judged a financial and athletic success, to get the Olympics back on track when many people were questioning their viability.

When Montreal and the Federation of Gay Games could not sign a contract in 2003, the future of the Gay Games was very much in doubt. Organizers, though, were able to put together a financial plan that worked. "Chicago raised more in sponsorships than any previous Gay Games," Boyer said. "Our total cash raised in sponsorships was around $3.5 million. Our overall budget was $9.5 million in cash with another $10 million value in kind donated in services and products."

That's an impressive achievement that should serve as a model for future gay sporting events. Getting corporate sponsors is vital to their success, especially if little no government money is forthcoming. "We did not budget for any government cash support but we did receive a $125,000 State of Illinois Tourism grant in support of marketing efforts, less than 1.5% of our overall budget," Boyer said. "Services like medical, security, legal, accounting, public relations, etc., were paid for by a combination of cash-for-services and in-kind contributions. To ensure our event would break even we were very aggressive in courting sponsorships from companies that we would normally have to pay and we are extremely grateful for their support."

From a sports standpoint, it was mostly hit ("it was arguably one of the best run international soccer competitions in which I have competed," one player said), but the misses were glaring. No Gatorade or water at mountain biking, and no air conditioning at the basketball venue despite a severe heat alert. Mix-ups in seedings and schedules affected softball and volleyball.

The worst, though, by all accounts was track and field. In Sydney in 2002, everyone raved about the track and field. "If your heat was going off at 2:17, it went off at 2:17," one athlete told me in admiration. They were also raving in Chicago, but in the "stark-raving mad" sense. Lars Rains, a New York City cop and veteran track athlete, said it was easily the worst-run track meet he had ever been to. One Swedish track athlete was so disgusted he wrote Outsports an e-mail regretting choosing Chicago over Montreal. In the interest of U.S.-Swedish relations, Chicago should refund this guy's registration.

From my own personal athletic standpoint, playing in the flag football event was the best tournament I've been associated with. All the players and teams were highly competitive on the field and incredibly friendly off and we had plenty of liquids and medical staff. I played with the "Dream Team" in terms of attitude, ability and lack of drama, and winning the gold was icing on the cake. For this reason, Chicago will always have a warm spot in my heart.

The organizers and volunteers of Chicago deserve a round of applause for rescuing an event that could have descended into oblivion. Asked what advice he would give Cologne, the Gay Game host in 2010, Boyer said:

"Think big, but plan conservatively to ensure that dreams do not exceed the ability to perform. Don't be afraid to trim nonessential elements in order to ensure the success of the core program. The Gay Games are 10-times larger and more complicated to produce than most people realize. Resist the temptation to agree to many seemingly reasonably but extra demands until you are confident that you can successfully deliver the core experience that people will expect."


It's hard for me to rate much of the event given my absence. Everyone I spoke with was uniformly positive about the atmosphere and organization. From the moment people arrived in town, they were aware the Outgames were happening. Signage was everywhere and the athlete's village drew raves.

From a sports standpoint, there seemed to be few complaints. The major one was an incident at water polo, where four members of a straight Montreal team made homophobic comments and gestures, according to the London gay team they had defeated. The Londoners were as upset by the slow response of organizers as they were to the original slur. A gay sports event is the last place any of us should have to put up with such comments on the field, and there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for any athletes that step out of line.

The organizers have been very cooperative with Outsports the past two years, but I do have one major criticism: People in Montreal seemed invested in the idea that their event was going to be bigger than the Gay Games, and hence by implication better. Extravagant boasts almost always wound up being scaled back.

It led to highly inflated projections of how many registrants they were going to have; 24,000 (an absurd number) was first bandied about, then 19,000, before organizers settled on 16,000. The final total was 12,083 (that includes 10,248 athletes and 835 cultural participants), according to the Outgames. They also claimed 500,000 spectators attended events. Based on every media report ("Organizers claim success despite poor attendance," was one headline), this was not possible, unless most spectators came disguised as empty seats. I will be interested in seeing Montreal's final budget report, especially if they were banking on 16,000 registrations to break even; any kind of loss would be a black eye for a group that boasted it would do things better.

Tourism Montreal was a big driver of the Outgames, and no one can spin like a tourism rep ("Come to Beirut! Great prices on hotels and the beaches are empty!"). But even gay people need to realize that size does not always matter.

The Future

The good news is that the next Outgames will be in Copenhagen in 2009, a year ahead of the Gay Games in Cologne, not a week later like this year. The bad news is that there is no sign that the split in the gay sports movement has been healed or that there is any interest in doing so. The Federation of Gay Games seems determined to go its own way, and GLISA, the competing body set up by the Outgames, is doing its thing.

The Gay Games have an edge in brand awareness. They have been around, every four years, since 1982 and have built a loyal following. Neither deficits nor bankruptcies have deterred gays and lesbians from going to the next Games. People have heard of the Games (even if they call them the Gay Olympics), while "Outgames" elicits a puzzled look and an explanation; almost no one has a clue what "GLISA" is.

In the race for media coverage, there was no contest – the Gay Games got much more than the Outgames. A search of Google News and of the Dow-Jones Factiva database turned up more than twice as many stories and mentions of the Gay Games as the Outgames. The events in Montreal were covered well in local media, but totally ignored in the U.S. Even many gay publications (Outsports being an exception) gave more coverage to Chicago than Montreal. Traffic on Outsports was also higher for the Gay Games than the Outgames, reflecting a more intense awareness and interest from an audience that is mostly American.

This brand awareness will give a huge leg up to Cologne, and the fact that the next Gay Games are in Europe will make the event geographically diverse once again. I also predict that many more Americans will go to Cologne than Copenhagen.

Knowing American vacation habits, it's hard to see that many people being able to afford or desire two European trips in a 12-month period (thought Copenhagen and Cologne are both fabulous cities). This is especially true of teams, which have a hard time organizing within the U.S., let alone trying to pull off two overseas trips in a short time. As long as the governing bodies of swimming, soccer and others recognize the Gay Games, this will be an event Americans will choose if they can only pick one.

Let's hope Cologne seeks out Chicago for advice and has not decided it knows it all and repeats the same financial mistakes as Amsterdam and Sydney. I also hope Cologne looks at what sports did not work well in Chicago and focus on making those better. But learning from past errors has never been a strong suit of most Gay Games organizing committees.

The Outgames biggest hurdle will be in convincing people why they are needed. The events in Montreal, while perhaps better organized and with a better atmosphere, in essence copied the Gay Games: An opening and closing ceremony; medals; inclusion; an emphasis on participation. They even copied the wildly popular Pink Flamingo swimming event and called theirs Out Splash.

I have heard a few athletes say they support "the Outgames vision," but I haven't seen where it's any different than the Gay Games vision first espoused by Dr. Tom Waddell a quarter-century ago. It seems more like a group of well-meaning people who want to reinvent the wheel, thinking they know better. Putting on one successful event hardly a movement makes.

GLISA promises to host "continental games," in Calgary in 2007 and Australia in 2008, sort of mini-Outgames of eight-10 sports. That sounds nice, but I imagine it will simply draw Canadians in 2007 and Australians in 2008. And will these events be economically feasible without the huge amount of government money that helped Montreal? With every major gay sport having national and international events yearly, do we really need another organization putting on its event? This will lead to "major event" fatigue.

As one Australian athlete wrote on Outsports, in a sentiment I share: "I think the idea of GLISA growing by having games everywhere, every year, will only water down the true blues who support these events. Whilst good in theory, with Eurogames 2009 deleted due to Copenhagen and probably 2010 deleted due to cologne, this can only be to the detriment of the Eurogames. And as for the Asia pacific games, well in Oz we can barely get two states together for a national Aussie games, so not sure how it will work trying to encompass our large and underpopulated area. … Not all of us (especially women) have the time or money to attend all these games and besides some of us attend major events in the straight sports world. We need to become one again not this continual watering down."

The Outgames were innately tied in with the Montreal gay power structure and the tourism people, so it will be a challenge to transport that to Copenhagen. It's easy to get people focused on one event, but doing it over and over is very difficult. The 2009 Outgames, should they lack for American athletes again, will risk being ghettoized as Can-Euro Games, which will lessen their necessity. Like it or not, the U.S. dominates the gay sports scene in terms of numbers of athletes and organizations, so an event largely devoid of Americans will have a hard time claiming legitimacy.

In an ideal world, FGG and GLISA would declare a truce and try to exist together, playing on each other's strengths and visions and making the gay sports movement truly universal. In a time where Pat Robertson now believes in global warming, anything is possible, but I think the animosity is too great between both sides, so I won't hold my breath. The ideal vision was stated in Montreal by Markus Bremen, a German athlete, who lamented the lack of Americans at the Outgames. He told the Montreal Gazette:

"I hope the two Games will get together eventually. It would be better to focus our energy and to have the whole world share the same stage." Amen.


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