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Jock Talk: Athletes speak up on Outgames

by Roger Brigham

The Swinging Sisters showdance team competed at the 2013<br>Outgames in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Courtesy YouTube
The Swinging Sisters showdance team competed at the 2013
Outgames in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Courtesy YouTube  

When I wrote a week ago about the cancellation of several sports at the upcoming 2017 Miami World Outgames and noted that thus far Outgames had avoided the kind of fiery outcry on social media that the disorganized 2015 EuroGames endured, apparently I spoke too soon.

Someone dropped a lit match.

As of the start of this week, 10 voices had spoken up on one person's sharing of last week's JockTalk column on Facebook and another 89 had recommended the column to their friends directly from the Bay Area Reporter website. Their disparate voices, articulated through roughly 6,000 words in a passionate exchange of advocacy, frustration, anger, and hope, show just how little is understood even within the global LGBT community of the goals, missions, and inner workings of its highest profile sports events – or of the way different organizations tackle those nuances impact LGBT athletes.

Faced with this barrage of viewpoints, I will now jump in to provide context and comments. Mind you, I am not an "insider" privy to the internal discussions and reasoning of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, which sanctions the event; and I have left all of my volunteer and board positions with the Federation of Gay Games and its supporting organizations, but I have been involved with many discussions and efforts in the LGBT sports inclusive movement through the years. So here goes:


Rift or no rift?

Good question. Some deny any rift exists between the FGG and GLISA and others think it is a dark stain that died in the past. There is no denying that the original organizers who bolted negotiations in 2003 to host the Gay Games and instead establish the rival Outgames had a serious rift with the FGG, whose business model they attacked as amateur, inefficient, imperious and over-controlling.

Those organizers are no longer around. A decade ago the FGG did much to overhaul its business operations and improve host support. And in the interim, GLISA discovered just how hard it is to meet the needs of thousands of athletes in multidisciplinary festival – while focusing on parties, culture, ceremonies, and human rights conferences to boot. That evolution has resulted in two radically different events with different emphases that barely have any resemblance to each other.

That's not a rift: that's different planetary orbits.


Mission focus

The Gay Games takes inclusive sports seriously. Its members devote hours devising regulations and policies for hosts, who generally have less institutional knowledge and experience in inclusive sports issues, that will make the sports experience as real, as inclusive, as representative, as competitive, as possible. Its board is studded with swimming, soccer, squash and tennis players. A participant survey done after the 2002 Sydney Gay Games called for sports as the overwhelming focus of the event, with almost no attention paid to parties or conferences.

FGG has pretty much stayed with that focus. If your sport disappoints at a Gay Games, it is likely a failure of your sport organization to assist in planning. But overwhelmingly surveys indicate sports participants go away happy.

In the Gay Games, that opportunity to participate and compete is its human rights mission. It knows its athletes have trained to participate at the highest level they can and take their training and competition seriously. Sports is not an afterthought: it is a physical and emotional expression of life at its fullest.

At the crux of the frustration of the athletes voting concerns about the Outgames is that it treats sports as an afterthought rather than as a primary focus. Several GLISA and Outgames officers have expressed to me through the years that human rights cannot be adequately advanced through sports; from World Outgames 2009 onward the conferences have been held up as an equal component even if that comes at the expense of sports. When a critic expressed this thought in the Facebook exchange, he was challenged by Duy Q. Ngo, a director of GLISA International living in Southern California and vice president of GLISA North America.


Paying the bills

"Where do you get the information that sports pay for human rights?" Ngo asked a swimmer. "Human rights and sports are two separate business units. One does not pay for the other."

But that does not address how much of the money generated directly through sports registrations or through sponsorship anticipation of the presence of those athletes goes directly to staging the sports events. And when athletes find themselves paying top notch dollars for a sports event with disappointing registrations or technical support or advance information – well, they tend to get heated.

The base registration fee for Miami is $250, plus whatever individual sports fee is tacked on. In the case of swimming, one of the events that is expected to be a success because of the presence of Gay and Lesbian International Aquatics, that fee is $35.

"If I am going to spend $300 just to compete in the event, I expect to arrive feeling like my investment was worth it, high quality, well organized competition," a Denver-area swimmer wrote. "It's not easy to organize such an event but it's hard to justify making the investment if the value is simply not there. Athletes are simply not going to take the event seriously and thus, less likely to invest in the event and promoting it to their teams and communities. There are a lot of different LGBT sporting events to choose from, so what sets Outgames apart? You might say the (conferences), but that's not going to attract athletes who expect to take part in a serious sporting event. Athletes are there to compete in sport, if the sporting competition isn't emphasized, organized and marketed to a high quality and expectation to the athletes, they will find other events to list on their schedule instead."


In conclusion

The voting membership of the FGG is built around LGBT sports organizations. Period. GLISA draws a substantial number of members from non-sports groups in the human rights movements.

While collecting its licensing revenue, FGG is actively involved through the quadrennial cycle in providing sports expertise for the host city and promoting the event. Past hosts of international and continental Outgames have said they got little to no promotional support after paying their fees and have been left to figure out sports issues for themselves.

My advice to athletes and other constituents has remained unchanged since the original split more than a decade ago: go to the websites of the respective hosts, see where their concentrations are, and see what they offer in your event. For the athlete, there's a big bang for events these days in registering for the Gay Games and Sin City Shootout extravaganzas, or for club tournaments and individual international sports championships. World Outgames – that's never been the focus and that hasn't been the reality. This is one event that would be vastly improved by dropping the oversaturated sports events and focusing on conferences.




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