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Jock Talk: If we remember, nothing is lost

by Roger Brigham

Previous Tom Waddell Award winners Gene Dermody, left, Brent Nichelson Earle, and Sara Waddell Lewinstein, attended the International Rainbow Memorial Run in San Francisco, which ended at United Nations Plaza. Photo: Eduardo Guardarramas
Previous Tom Waddell Award winners Gene Dermody, left, Brent Nichelson Earle, and Sara Waddell Lewinstein, attended the International Rainbow Memorial Run in San Francisco, which ended at United Nations Plaza. Photo: Eduardo Guardarramas  

I was scanning down the column of names when it hit me how many of them belonged to people I knew or to people whose legacies had profoundly affected my life. That's when my throat started drying up, just when I needed it most.

On Saturday, February 3, International FrontRunners and the Federation of Gay Games held the kickoff of their quadrennial International Rainbow Memorial Run, which raises awareness both of the Gay Games and AIDS - a debilitating illness and an empowering event whose histories are interwoven in the defining moments of our community.

The memorial run always begins in San Francisco - birthplace of the Gay Games and a crucial battleground for so much of the fight against AIDS - but has substantially changed with evolving circumstances through the years. Tom Waddell Award-winner Brent Nichelson Earle first organized it in 1990 as a relay run to Vancouver - the first time the Gay Games were held outside of San Francisco. Four years later it was a rollerblade relay across the country to New York City, host of Gay Games IV.

These days the event opens with a casual run in San Francisco from Golden Gate Park to City Hall, followed by runs in other past host cities and winding up in the current host city, which this year is Paris. The past two memorial run kickoffs in San Francisco were gray and drizzly, the kind of weather that can discourage even diehard supporters. I remember speaking at the run in 2014, talking about the homophobic and transphobic threats that would face folks at the Winter Olympics in Russia and the need to continue to fight injustice whenever and wherever we saw it. But this year the Bay Area weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, the kind of weather that engenders optimism and brings out flocks of supporters.

Reggie Snowden, a veteran local runner who oversaw so much of the organization and logistics of this year's event, asked me to speak again. I agreed and found myself at a little after 9 in the morning in the National AIDS Memorial Grove, where the calla lilies were in bloom (again). I talked to the runners about the importance of reaching out beyond our athletic circles to bring other members of our LGBT community into accepting, supportive sports experiences. I pointed to the baseball hat I was wearing that was a giveaway at a San Francisco Giants' LGBT Night; the Equality Coaching Alliance jacket from an organization that represented more than 500 LGBT coaches and their supporters; and the Mission High School wrestling hoodie I had worn for a decade as an openly gay coach in a local public high school.

"None of these was conceivable, was possible, decades ago when the Gay Games started," I told them. "Bringing people into a supportive sports experience is one of the most valuable, selfless and effective things we can do."

Then it was on to United Nations Plaza across from City Hall. There we heard speeches from such notables as gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, the sole gay member of the board and the city's first known HIV-positive supervisor. I talked with local athlete Marcus Valera, who shared his memories about running in every Memorial Run since its inception. We listened to Sara Waddell Lewinstein - a tireless Gay Games advocate and the widow of Waddell (for whom a side street just a block away was named) - talk about the creation of memories and formed family through the Gay Games, and Nichelson Earle about the trials and tribulations of his activism through the decades. Local athletes from organizations such as FrontRunners, San Francisco Track and Field, SF Tsunami and SF Spikes listened respectfully to the speakers and applauded the joyous acrobatics of Cheer SF and Cheer Sacramento.

An AIDS quilt panel was ceremoniously unfolded so that a list of Gay Games friends who had died from AIDS or breast cancer or who had tended to such folks could be read, and then spectators could write the names on the quilt of loved ones whom they wished to memorialize.

The printed list of names had three columns, the second and third of which were read aloud by Snowden and Waddell Lewinstein. I was asked to announce the names from the first column. I didn't think that much about it and I prepared by scanning down the list to make sure I knew how to pronounce them all, just casually prepping to honor the names of so many people I really did not know and therefore knew had little connection to me but were important to others, important only in an abstract sense for me ... and then I stopped scanning as the world refocused into something sharp, painful and beautiful, the lapse of many years dissolving into a single dazzling moment and memory.

Mark Bingham.

I never met Bingham, but to a large degree he inspired my life in LGBT sports. I became aware of him after his heroic death on 9/11 and sought solace that weekend by meeting other rugby enthusiasts at a San Francisco Fog practice, and then - unable to play rugby because of hip replacement surgery - volunteering at two of their street fair fundraising beer booths. Deciding then to challenge myself to find some way to revive my inner athlete.

Which led me to wrestling, where I heard the legends of other LGBT wrestlers such as Gary France, Peter Runyon, Steve Swanson, and Larry Blakely, whose names were now on the sheet of paper in my hands. The wrestling led to involvement in the Gay Games, where I met hardworking inspirational volunteers such as Peg Grey and Ivan Bussens, whose names I also held in my hands. The wrestling also led to my becoming a coach at Mission High, whose program was founded by fellow gay wrestler Don Jung - again, someone whose name I now held in my hands.

In that instant it all hit me, I saw it all, and tears crowded the corners of my eyes, attempting to obscure the realization and the sight of it all.

But I choked it back and I read on.

I'd talked earlier, urging my fellow athletes to recruit more athletes for their program and help them by coaching and encouraging them.

It's easy advice to forget, even for me. But standing there, a typed sheet of paper in my hands, athletes surrounding me on a warm, sunny day of hope and love, I remembered even more to be worthy of a sheet of typed names some where some time long after I am gone. You'll never know those who may stumble across your name years from now, but you want to be worthy when they hold your name in their hands

Things to see at the Winter Olympics
Yes, we will have the novelty of a couple of gay men representing the United States at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea over the next couple of weeks, but there are several other intriguing things to watch for from our domestic perches so far from the snow and icy slopes and rinks of competition. Among them:

• Vice President Mike Pence leading the United States contingent. Four years ago, President Barack Obama stacked the delegation with numerous LGBT sports representatives. This year President Donald Trump appointed a leader who has a strong anti-LGBT record and who is reportedly hostile to the inclusion of North Korean athletes on the host South Korean ice hockey team.

Axios co-founder Mike Allen reported, "A Pence aide told me, 'the vice president will remind the world that everything the North Koreans do at the Olympics is a charade to cover up the fact that they are the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet. The V.P. will point out the reality of the oppression in North Korea by a regime that has enslaved its people. We will not allow North Korea's propaganda to hijack the messaging of the Olympics.'"

New countries, new events. Those of you who grew up marveling at the novelty of the Jamaican bobsled team will be happy to know half a dozen countries will make their Winter Games debut this year: Nigeria, Singapore, Malaysia, Ecuador, Eritrea, and Kosovo. Among new events this go-round are mass-start speedskating (because when you have sharp blades flashing furiously, it's more entertaining to see them packed together like sardines); big-air snowboarding (snow boarders flying off a 160-foot ramps? Count us in!); and mixed doubles curling because you can never have enough permutations of people with little brooms on the ice rink).

• Cheating Russian athletes entered as non-Russian non-cheats. The International Olympic Committee ruled in December that the Soviet team would be barred from this year's Olympics because of systematic doping violations in the 2014 Winter Olympics. But 168 of the individual athletes are scheduled to appear under an "Olympic Athletes from Russia" banner and will not be honored with the playing of the Russian national anthem if they win golds; and another 13 athletes who were originally ruled ineligible have asked the IOC to let them in after the Court of Arbitration for Sports called the information against them "insufficient." The IOC has said it will not lift their bans.

Ah, but the Russians apparently have no monopoly on cheating. Great Britain's Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD reported Sunday that 50 cross country skiers set to compete in Korea had "abnormal" blood readings, according to a database of testing results they had reviewed. World Anti-Doping Agency officials say there's not much they can do about that if the media outlets will not share their data.

Everything worth knowing about the Super Bowl
Two teams ran up a lot of yardage in the Super Bowl last Sunday and the team that was not projected so much to win actually won, which set off some obligatory and celebratory urban destruction, but few arrests, and triggered endless of hours of commentary on television and radio sports programs.

Of greater interest, social media was abuzz last week with viral notice of three "Jeopardy" contestants not knowing any of the questions, or even trying to guess, when they were confronted with a series of answers in the category, "Talkin' Football." Not even a single flinch among the trio to tease us that they might actually buzz in. Football friends of mine were aghast and dumbfounded that the contestants could be so ignorant of the facts. Me? I just completed a season of not watching any football games at any level, so I saw it as a ray of hope for the future.

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