Gay Games

Agnes Elling. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 2, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Former Olympic decathlete Dr. Tom Wadell realized a dream by staging the first Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982. His goal was to organize an inclusive, safe sport and cultural event for gays and lesbians—without excluding heterosexuals—as an alternative sports event free of the homophobia existing within mainstream sports. (Homophobia can best be described as the irrational fear and hatred of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, manifested through prejudice, discrimination, harassment, physical violence, and the like.) Combating stereotypes about gays and lesbians in sports, empowering individuals, and building bridges between mainstream and “queer” communities are central goals of the Federation of Gay Games (FGG), the international governing body of the Gay Games. Since its foundation in 1989, the federation has been responsible for “safeguarding the spirit, integrity and quality of the Gay Games” by selecting, supporting, and controlling their host organizations.

The Gay Games have been staged every four years since 1982 and have grown into one of the largest international sport and cultural events. With more than ten thousand participants in about thirty different sports, it exceeds the Olympic Games in terms of sheer numbers. Furthermore, several thousand people participate in cultural events (e.g., choir and band performances) during the Gay Games. The organization is run by thousand of workers, mainly volunteers, and Gay Games events are attended by up to a million spectators. Gay Games VII will take place in Chicago in 2006, returning to the North American continent, after the fifth and sixth editions were held in Europe (Amsterdam) and Australia (Sydney), respectively. Over the past two decades, the Gay Games have grown into an enormous popular and successful international, multimillion dollar, queer rainbow event. However, this success has been tempered to some extent by financial problems, management crises, and internal and external criticism.

What Is “Olympic” About the Gay Games?

Waddell founded San Francisco Arts and Athletics, which organized the first “Gay Olympics” in 1982. The use of the name “Olympics,” however, was successfully opposed by the International Olympic Committee, through a court injunction, shortly before the games started (International Olympic Committee v. San Francisco Arts and Athletics). The refusal of the IOC to “lend” “Olympic” to the Gay Games has often been referred to as discrimination against gays and lesbians within GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) communities. But since 1910, numerous other events (e.g., Deaf Olympics, Military Olympics, Senior Olympics) have been legally refused use of the word Olympic or Olympic symbols, the Special Olympics, a sport event for people with cognitive impairments, being the only exception. Moreover, only events sanctioned by the FGG are allowed to use the name “Gay Games” and the related symbols.

The spectacular official opening and closing ceremonies of the Gay Games, including a parade of all participants, distinguished by country, do to some extent resemble those of the Olympic Games The most important difference with the Olympic Games or other international competitive sport events for specific groups (e.g., the Universiade for students) is that there are no qualifying criteria to compete in the Gay Games. Everyone is welcome to participate within a sport, the only selection criterion being the order of registration. In most sports a maximum number of teams or participants is allowed. The traditional Olympic motto “participating is more important than winning” is mirrored by Gay Games’ “doing one’s personal best.” Nevertheless, many participants are very seriously competing for a medal or to “win the gold.”

Gay Games participants vary enormously in age and sporting abilities. Therefore, individual sport events like swimming and track and field are organized by age classifications (according to the standards of the international swimming and track and field federations), and team sport events are often divided into categories based on skill. This means that there are many medals to be won. Also, each participant of the Gay Games can collect a general medal of participation.

Developments Through the Years

The first Gay Games (Challenge 1982) were held in San Francisco, on a budget of $350,000. This event saw 1,350 athletes from twelve countries competing in seventeen different sports. When the next games (Triumph 1986) were also hosted by San Francisco four years later, the number of sport participants had risen to 3,500. (Founder Tom Waddell died of AIDS shortly after these games.) In 1989 the local organization, San Francisco Arts and Athletics, became the international governing body, the Federation of Gay Games.

Gay Games III (Celebration 1990) took place in the Canadian city of Vancouver, welcoming nearly 7,500 athletes in twenty-three sports and 1,500 cultural participants (up from 400 in the first games). For the first time world records in the master age class (in swimming) were broken and were officially recognized, and the organization was confronted with financial losses, although the local economy had profited enormously. New York City was the home of Gay Games IV (Unity 1994), where the number of sport participants had again increased to 11,000 from forty-five countries. The games were organized to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the GLBT festival, commemorating the city’s Stonewall riots of 1969.

In 1998 the Gay Games were held outside the North American continent for the first time. Friendship 1998 was hosted by “the gay capital of Europe”: Amsterdam. These sixth Gay Games had a budget of $7 million and welcomed a record number of nearly 14,500 sports participants. Shortly before the games started, it became clear that financial mismanagement threatened the full staging of the Gay Games program, which was guaranteed by extra subsidies granted by the city of Amsterdam.

Gay Games VI (Under New Skies 2002) were held in the Southern hemisphere, in Australia. Several of the Olympic venues of the 2000 Sydney Games were used by 11,000 athletes and 1,000 cultural participants from more than seventy countries. As in the other Gay Games, the most popular sports in Sydney were swimming, track and field, marathon, volleyball, and tennis. Again, the organization was confronted with a large financial deficit, partly due to overly optimistic expectations concerning ticket sales for several official program events.

Along with repeated financial mismanagement by the host organizations, there has been another challenge to the unity and solidarity of the international GLBT sporting community. An unresolved conflict between the assigned host of Gay Games VII in 2006, Montreal, and the FGG resulted in withdrawal of official assignment. Chicago became the new official Gay Games destination. Since the Montreal organization continues its preparations for an international queer sports event, two separate international gay/lesbian sport and cultural events will be held in 2006. Moreover, the European sister organization, the EGLSF (European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation), has withdrawn their membership from the FGG. Since 1992, the EGLSF has organized the EuroGames in the years without a Gay Games. The “large-scale edition” of the EuroGames, which is held every four years, has also grown into a big queer sport and cultural event, with Munich 2004, welcoming over 55,000 participants in twenty-six different sports.

To combat the financial and managerial problems that have accompanied the Gay Games since 1990, the federation wrote a strategic plan in 2003 with stricter rules for future host cities. Twenty “core sports” were identified, covering a range of team and individual sports for men and women of different ages. Depending on the country and region of the host city (national culture and natural evironment), extra sports can be added to the program. In Sydney, for example, a sailing event took place. The federation wants to limit extra official cultural events, outreach programs, and parties that are not securely financially covered or based on reliable ticket sales expectations.

Processes of globalization and commercialism have accompanied the original idealistic goals of the Gay Games. In spite of the existing financial perils, the Gay Games have developed as a result of a perfect fit between growing sport tourism and gay tourism industries and can be identified as the biggest celebration of queer subculture.


As was mentioned earlier, with respect to sporting abilities the Gay Games are very inclusive, because there are no qualifying criteria to participate. But what about other aspects of inclusion?

Although the event is regarded as separative and most participants are indeed gay men and lesbian women, the vision of the FGG is to be sexually inclusive, and therefore straight men and women are also welcome to participate. In Sydney, 95 percent of the participants identified themselves as homosexual, 3 percent as bisexual, and 1 percent as heterosexual. Over the last years the games tended to be more inclusive to transgender people as well, although as in mainstream sport, most sport events are strictly structured by gender and do not include mixed gender or separate transgender categories. On registration forms, however, participants have more possibilities than only “male” or “female” to describe their gender. (One percent of Sydney 2002 participants identified themselves as transgender.)

In some editions of the Gay Games, the organization was rather successful in pursuing an equal gender ratio among participants. In San Francisco and Amsterdam, more than 40 percent of all participants were women. In Sydney, as in some other Gay Games, men clearly outnumbered women. Gender equality and inclusiveness are important to the federation, as witnessed, for example, by the coed presidency of the executive committee and in the development of outreach programs for women and non-Western participants by host organizations.

Since the event has grown enormously in its relatively short history, as well as becoming more professional and commercial, the integrative philosophy mainly holds true for the increasing cooperation between gay/lesbian sport organizations (from informal groups to clubs and international federations) and mainstream institutionalized sport. Many volunteers and most of the officials are heterosexual. Since most sport events during the Gay Games are sanctioned by international sporting bodies, there are more possibilities for elite athletes to compete and for new national and world records (mainly in the master age classes) to be recognized.

In contrast to many international mainstream sport events, young athletes are largely underrepresented. The majority of the participants are between 30 and 49 years of age. In Sydney, 20–29 year olds made up 7 percent of the total group, and 14 percent fell in the age category of 50 and over. Explanations for the senior character of the event are twofold. First, many young gays and lesbians are still participating in mainstream sport and are not members of the gay/lesbian sport clubs that provide the majority of participants in the Gay Games. Second, many young gays and lesbians are still studying and therefore have less income, which is a major impediment for participating in the Gay Games. Apart from travel and accommodations costs, registration fees and tickets to official Gay Games events and parties are rather expensive, which has led critics to characterize the event as the “Pay Games.” The Gay Games are therefore certainly not inclusive to all people, regardless of income.

Furthermore, the majority of the participants is highly educated and “white”: among the Sydney participants 43 percent received a college or university degree and only 9 percent identified themselves as persons of color (including members of tribal and indigenous groups).

The underrepresentation and exclusion of lower income groups and nonwhite people are partly compensated, however, by special outreach programs for people from GLBT communities in countries in Eastern Europe, Pan American, South Asia, and Africa. For many of the participants from these countries, it is extremely difficult to lead an openly gay/lesbian lifestyle at home; the sense of “freedom to be who you are” and of international solidarity and community is probably even more empowering for them than it is for other participants.

Integration or Separation?

The central vision of the FGG and the respective host organizations is formulated in terms of their contribution to emancipation and integration. Their aim, to contribute to a better world through international sport events, is not unique to the Gay Games; it is similar to Olympic ambitions of “fraternization” and “peace.” The games certainly can benefit processes leading to personal empowerment, identity development, and temporary feelings of recognition and security instead of the marginalization, fear, and/or violence that many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people still experience in their daily lives. But it would be somewhat naïve to expect international sporting events to make the world a better place. For many participants the Gay Games are mainly a gay/lesbian sport and cultural event and a celebration of subculture, during which they strive for their personal best, a medal, friendships, one-night stands, or to meet a steady partner. Many don’t identify with or believe in the wider political or ideological impacts of the Gay Games (although they may be eager to buy official souvenirs with the respective Gay Games logos and mottos, like Triumph, Unity, or Friendship).

There is not only support for, but often also criticism of the Gay Games from individuals and organizations within GLBT communities, as well as other persons in public life, journalists, and “common people.” The most important question for both gay/lesbian and straight people is, Why is it necessary to have separate games when gays/lesbians want to integrate into mainstream society? People might give different answers to this question: visibility, emancipation, empowerment, resistance, celebration, freedom, integration. Maybe the best answer to this question is a return question: Why are gay/lesbian events like the Gay Games more often “attacked” for being separative than, for example, male-only professional sport events like football or rugby championships, sport events for students or certain branches of the military, Jewish Games, or any multicultural sport and cultural festival?

Contested Sports Spaces

Visible (separate) sport participation by lesbians and gays can certainly challenge, but simultaneously confirm, stereotypical images of gay and lesbian people. The more challenging Gay Games events include same-sex (ice) dancing competitions and gay male competition in hard contact sports, whereas male cheerleaders and tough lesbian football or ice hockey players may confirm existing stereotypes of sporting gays and lesbians. Since most of the public at large read or hear about and see these events through mainstream newspapers and television, and since the mass media often look for stereotypical “queer signs,” it is not plausible that the Gay Games only contribute to images of cultural integration.

GLBT sport events possess possibilities for “queer resistance” to the mainstream sports culture and “integration of sexual difference,” but their existence and visibility does not automatically lead to greater acceptance of sexual diversity by the public.