The OutField: Gay Games 9 builds on the past

By Dan Woog

The past year marked a watershed for LGBT sports. Athletes at every level - professional, college, high school and amateur - at first ventured, then flooded out of the closet. Media attention no longer treats gay athletes as exotic creatures, all but unheard of in the real world; stories now focus on more nuanced aspects of their lives. Homophobes are increasingly marginalized, banished from the sidelines to the back row of the bleachers.

In some ways (though we're still waiting for that first huge-name pro male team-sport athlete to come out), LGBT athletics has reached the point we've long waited for: normalcy.

So does that mean there's no longer any need for the Gay Games?

Thousands of athletes, a hefty lineup of corporate sponsors, and hundreds of paid and volunteer organizers beg to differ.

Gay Games 9 - the next edition of the event first held 32 years ago in San Francisco - is set for Aug. 9-16 in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. Patterned on the Olympic Games (but denied use of the "O" word by a legal challenge), the Gay Games are now an international spectacle.

Unlike the Olympics, anyone can participate. The Gay Games are open to all athletes 18 or older, "regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, political beliefs, athletic or artistic ability, age, physical challenge or health status."

Realistically, of course, an event called "The Gay Games" draws competitors mostly from the LGBT community. Typically, about 10 percent are non-LGBT (most often, friends and family who participate to show support).

And, says Gay Games 9 marketing manager Matt Cordish, despite the increasing visibility, acceptance, even celebration of LGBT athletes in mainstream athletics, there remains a need for an event that is way gay.

"There are still people around the world who are ridiculed or hated for who they are," says Cordish. "In the Gay Games, there is no judgment. This is an eye-opening opportunity for people who don't have that acceptance or lack of judgment in the rest of their lives. We're getting near the point when gay sports is a non-story. But there are still parts of the world where you can be punished, or even executed, for being gay."

Cordish - who played soccer, lacrosse and baseball as a youth, and whose main sport is now ice hockey - spends a great deal of time on the road. Part of his job involves spreading the word about the Gay Games, urging individuals and teams to register. He hears stories every day about the power of athletics to change LGBT lives.

"One man told me how hard his life was growing up," Cordish says. "He's HIV-positive. But he got involved with sports, and he's doing well. This is his reason to keep going."

As in previous Gay Games, some participants this year are not out at all at home. Traveling to Cleveland, and taking part in this event, marks an enormous step for them.

Cordish acknowledges the strides made in recent years. Gay Games 9 will draw upon the visibility of newly out athletes, empowering those who are not yet out, while providing one more opportunity to show the general public that LGBT people are indeed everywhere. And, Cordish adds, "We do need an event that showcases the ideal that Gay Games founder Tom Waddell worked so hard to create: an environment free of judgment, where all athletes can perform their best."

Those performances will take place in a broad array of sports: softball, track and field, soccer, swimming, rodeo, bowling, volleyball, rowing, even darts. Up to 9,000 participants are expected from around the world. Those numbers are on par with the number of athletes in the Summer Olympics. Like the Olympics, there are opening and closing ceremonies, a "Festival Village," and plenty of parties. Plus, of course, corporate sponsors: Wells Fargo, United Airlines, KeyBank and more.

Unlike the Olympics, there are also "cultural" competitions, in band and chorus.

Organizers expect 20,000 additional guests, performers, spectators and volunteers.

Regular Gay Games-goers may find a different environment than they're used to. Cleveland and Akron are not exactly San Francisco - where the first two Games were held - nor are they Vancouver, New York City, Amsterdam, Sydney, Chicago or Cologne, the hosts of following events.

"There's a thriving gay community in northeast Ohio," Cordish says. "There's no one defined area, like West Hollywood, the Castro or Boys Town. But we can go anywhere, and be ourselves."

And the region has something few other Gay Games venues can boast: a PGA Tour stop. That's Firestone Country Club, site of the golf competition.

Fore!

Registrations are still being accepted for Gay Games 9. Go to http://gg2014.sportingpulse.com; enter "GoAllOut" where prompted, for $30 off the general registration price. Spectator packages are available too.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach and gay activist. His latest book is "We Kick Balls: True Stories from the Youth Soccer Wars." He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
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