Jock Talk: 2017: The year Outgames imploded
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A lot happened in sports in 2017. Football became a battleground over player safety, civil rights demonstrations, and a staged vice presidential drop-by. Cultures of sexual abuse and predation in youth sports were exposed. The Yankees and Red Sox accused each other of stealing signs while China accused three USC basketball players of stealing trinkets. Serena Williams won yet another Australian Open in tennis at the age of 35 while several weeks pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Jr. In the midst of it all, the Outgames fatally imploded.
The death of the Outgames was paradoxically the greatest blessing LGBT sports had in 2017.
The World Outgames were a nihilistic golem haunting LGBT participatory sports since 2004. They were invented by a handful of jilted organizers in Montreal who, in 2003, had walked away from negotiations to host the 2006 Gay Games, chafing at the requirements demanded of a Gay Games host, and deciding to create their own beast to usurp the Gay Games they had come to loathe.
They sculpted their invention from the mud of their own disdain. They created an event that would not be accountable to anyone — not to an overseeing licensing body, and certainly not to participating athletes, who would pay and register for events to be held under rules that could later be swapped out without prior notice for another set of rules.
This fabricated creature roamed the globe naked for years, largely without being exposed by LGBT and mainstream media for the self-serving fraud that it was. Over and over again, the brand would be trumpeted in media outlets across the globe, praised for achievements it had never accomplished and never would. Fifteen thousand athletes in town drawing in tens of thousands of more spectators and generating tens of millions in revenues? Yeah, right — and here is a bridge we'd love to sell you.
The Gay Games were created in 1982 to empower queer athletes — and encourage other queers to join them in the sports that had seemed to be out of their reach. Outgames were designed to fleece those same athletes and their supporters by selling promises the event simply did not deliver.
Like so many others, I have repeatedly referred to Gay Games as "life-changing" without explaining the level at which they change anybody's life. To outsiders, it may seem just to be a bunch of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks rolling around, entertaining themselves by throwing balls, jumping, and running.
It is much more than that. It is thousands of those athletes from across the globe, after earlier leading lives of isolation and desperation, each thinking he or she was the "only one" in the world, gathering and competing with countless peers of similar circumstances and interests — often meeting lovers and friends they would have for the rest of their lives. It is thousands of frustrated formerly non-athletes discovering there is a sports world ready to accept and embrace them, ready to provide an encouraging wealth of opportunities in which they can compete, challenge themselves — and prove themselves. It is thousands of virtually anonymous individuals, through discipline and sacrifice in months of training for a few precious moments of competition, building the sense of confidence and self-worth to transform and empower their lives.
The Gay Games also transform the attitudes and policies of mainstream sports administrators with whom they interact, easing the way for future generations of would-be athletes. They transform the attitudes of the straight men and women in the countries and cities in which they are held — straight men and women who may never have knowingly had positive, pleasant interactions with LGBT individuals.
The tourism and economic impacts are nice things that happen along the way: they are not the objectives of the Gay Games.
The Outgames turned all of that on its head. The Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association, which licensed the Outgames, never valued sports as an important human rights component, but rather merely as a tourism gimmick to promote event registration. It routinely outsourced sports decisions to mainstream organizations with minimal interaction. Above sports, it prized conferences, parties, and ceremonies: elements more understandable and sellable to a broad LGBT audience raised on Pride celebrations and political demonstrations. Athlete fees in effect subsidized the conferences and parties the athletes themselves had little interest in and even less time for.
Each World Outgames drew fewer participants than the one before, yet that decline generally went unreported in LGBT and mainstream news media. My predecessor, Jim Provenzano, wrote extensively about Montreal's original attempt to co-opt the Gay Games and its subsequent spectacular multimillion-dollar bankruptcy that hurt so many small LGBT businesses, but I have seen damned little scrutiny of the Outgames by colleagues since then. Instead, every quadrennial since, media outlets have tripped all over themselves in their efforts to promote and hype the events as being the best sports thing to happen to LGBT athletes since sequined skating costumes.
Simple web searches or intensive interviews would have revealed the hollowness of such marketing, but most outlets either never bothered with the research or just didn't share it.
The last hurrah came in late spring when Ivan Cano, CEO of World Outgames 4 in Miami, canceled the event at the last minute, with almost all of the registrants either en route from as far away as Australia and Europe or already on the ground, scrambling for something to fill the time. Travel costs, hotel fees, and vacation time were all hopelessly lost. For months organizers had lied and presented a rosy picture that nothing was amiss, but once and for all, there was no denying that the Outgames were a colossal bust full of promises and hype signifying nothing.
There are now two major international multi-sport festivals — the Gay Games and the Sin City Classic — as well as several localized multi-sport events and numerous international single-sport championships to carry the inclusive participatory sports mission forward. As the wounds heal from the disastrous distraction that was the Outgames, no doubt the movement will emerge as strong and as empowering as ever. We will realize that sports events organized by athletes rather than special-event commissars are the most rewarding and satisfying of events we can have.