Lucky VII: Gay Games heats up Chicago
by Jim Provenzano
While a record heat wave left visitors sweating, for the 11,650 participants of the seventh Gay Games, which opened Saturday, July 15 at Soldier Field in Chicago, being drenched in sweat was the goal.
Amid the bustle of registration, which finished at the Chicago Hilton Hotel earlier that day, thousands of participants greeted each other and took care of last-minute questions and needs before opening ceremonies that night.
For Robert Shimmel of Wyandotte, Michigan, the Games are part of his impressive record of having competed in more than 260 marathons. "I've done one in every state three times," said Shimmel, who is 76. "I've also done every Canadian province and territory once." Married to a woman and "a hundred percent gay," Shimmel said, "my family encourages me to do whatever I want."
Even before athletes entered Soldier Field for opening ceremonies, an air of festivity prevailed. Jody Gates of Team New Orleans women's basketball handed out colorful Mardi Gras beads to passersby. Competing in the "over 50" category, Gates has played basketball since childhood, and has joined with straight and lesbian players from the Senior Olympics to compete. "It's wonderful to be here," said Gates. "We ran in Amsterdam's Games and in New York. It's a great experience, all the way around."
Gates, 67, said about 30 New Orleans residents traveled to Chicago to be in the Games. "[Our group's] a lot smaller this year, for obvious reasons," said Gates, referring to the devastation of last year's Hurricane Katrina, which swept through the Gulf Coast. Nevertheless, Team New Orleans will compete in taekwon do, bowling, volleyball, and other sports. "Some of us lost our homes and are living with friends or in trailers. I'm living in half my home. We're thrilled to be here in Chicago, come hell and high water!"
The traditional hours-long waiting game of grouping athletes at their entry points to the stadium passed quickly with the help of hundreds of volunteers, like Dave Schumaker, who carried stacks of water bottles for thirsty athletes. Christopher Rowe, also a volunteer, said, "I'm carrying a nation's flag today, helping at water polo tomorrow, and with wrestling on Monday."
The Games' opening ceremonies, produced by Kile Ozier, hearkened back to the 1994 Games in New York, where a spectacle filled with American traditions inspired the thousands of local and visiting athletes and cultural participants.
Bursting onto the green turf of Soldier Field, members of Team San Francisco â€“ hundreds strong and in colorful blue jackets â€“ marched toward a giant golden cauldron. Since the Gay Games began in San Francisco, "the Athens of the Games" is always given the honor of being first on the field. But soon enough, participants from 65 countries marched in, rounded out by the 2,500-strong Team Chicago, and quickly filled the playing field. Some stood while others relaxed on the cool grassy field. As darkness ensued, athletes, on cue, lit up 11,000 glow-sticks in six colors, making a giant, twinkling rainbow flag.
Figure skater and Federation of Gay Games board member Laura Moore has been involved in the FGG's scholarship task force, which brought nearly 100 athletes from South Africa, Croatia, Papua New Guinea, and other countries. "We had a special reception on Saturday to welcome these guests," said Moore. "The speeches were tearful; there were spontaneous eruptions of song and dance. It was so powerful, and to me, it's what this Gay Games is really about." For a change of pace, Moore is doing a duet in figure skating with a male partner, Bradley Erickson. "I've only ever skated with female partners at the Gay Games," she added. "But I'm trying something a little different."
Visiting athletes enjoyed singers Erasure's Andy Bell and Jody Watley, but famous sports figures shone bright as well. David Kopay delivered the athletes' oath, and former San Diego Padres baseball player Billy Bean recited the officials' pledge. Former NFL player Esera Tuaolo sang a soulful a cappella version of "Take the Flame," the Gay Games theme song.
Comedian Margaret Cho offered her unique take on the religious fundamentalists who threatened to protest at the rowing events scheduled for Sunday in suburban Crystal Lake (less than a dozen showed up), referencing her own "bible" passage, "Thou shalt shut the fuck up." Of antigay marriage amendments, Cho added, "Why would anyone want to deny gay men the right to a bridal registry?"
With perhaps too many great talents, at four-and-a-half hours, the opening ceremonies exceeded the patience of some participants who had just arrived that day or had competitions early on Sunday.
Of course, the combined international marching bands brought the crowd of 32,000 to appreciative applause, and a nude streaker who cut a swath through the bands offered a moment's impromptu distraction (Gay Games officials said the streaker was arrested).
But if I had to cite a new star of these ceremonies, it would be gymnast Matthew Cusick, who won an HIV discrimination complaint against Cirque du Soleil.
Fortified by an army of dancers, drummers, and music â€“ including a techno mix with excerpts of Carl Orf's "Carmina Burana" â€“ Cusick, who served as a tumbling, dancing everyman exemplifying the gay rite of passage, gave the evening a powerful, sexy, and righteous theme. In four parts, his solos (and duets with KeniMattix hand-balancing partner, Ken Berkeley) told a stylishly abstracted plot of sorts, from exclusion and oppression to finally expression and ignition.
Culminating in a full-field extravaganza featuring the amazing Anti-Gravity performance troupe of gymnasts, tumblers, and fire dancers, the festivities finished with fireworks blasting above Soldier Field into the night sky.
As the throngs of athletes, artists, and fans placidly swarmed out of Soldier Field and toward their hotels and to trains and buses along Michigan Avenue, another sports event passed them â€“ a city-sponsored midnight bike ride of hundreds of cyclists.
Mere hours later, and only a short distance from the previous night's festivities, more than 100 triathletes took to the waters of Monroe Harbor Sunday, glistening in wetsuits under the dawn sunrise.
Through Sunday, a dozen of the more than 30 sports and cultural events were under way. Buses, trains, and streets filled with participants, easily recognizable by their ID badges, team T-shirts, and beaming smiles. Sophisticated Chicagoans took their presence in welcoming stride â€“ LGBT athletes had blanketed the steamy, humid city and suburbs with energy, hope, and a giddy sense of anticipation.
Monday saw 22 sports going strong throughout the day; including badminton, cycling, flag football, and wrestling. By late Monday, as the nightly parties and receptions began to wind down, a thunder-and-lightning storm lit up the impressive Chicago skyline, followed by a brief cooling rainstorm. But even Mother Nature couldn't douse the flame of the Gay Games.