By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
This has been a common question for many years now, people questioning “why” are LGBTQI sports events still a thing in a so-called “post equality” society. I have been a staunch defender of the relevance of LGBTQI sports events such as Gay Games, Sin City Classic and other events on a local, national and international level because I truly believe they are relevant. Even despite the disasters of recent LGBTQI sports events including the 2015 and 2019 Eurogames as well as the 2017 Outgames (as well as the Outgames brand as a whole).
However, I am starting to question this resolve myself. Why do we need LGBTQI sports events? I ask this because the LGBTQI is now facing an existential crisis that has been a long time coming, but only now exasperated by Covid-19. In the last 5 years, 3 of the biggest LGBTQI sports events have been unmitigated disasters. Plagued by overconfidence, incompetence and straight up crookery, these events and the people behind them have damaged this community in ways that have left athletes broke and running away from it forever. Sure, with large events you can’t expect everything to go perfect and everybody has bad days. But when you start to see patterns of bad behavior emerge without any real resolve, you start to question the validity, relevance and future of the movement. Most importantly, as an athlete who would be paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for event registration, travel and lodging expenses, you ask “is this event worth investing in?”
The events I mentioned above, the 2015 and 2019 Eurogames as well as the 2017 Outgames have led me to consider these questions. Leading into 2020 I had optimism that the next edition to the Eurogames, due to be held this summer in Düsseldorf, would inspire confidence in me again that you can organize a large LGBTQI multi-sport event without fucking it up. I had every reason to believe, having attended the well-organized annual Düssel-Cup last year which is organized by the same group hosting the 2020 Eurogames, the impressive marketing campaign and community involvement. All green flags for me going into this event that I even planned on organizing an entire team of athletes from my Sports University to attend.
Outside of their control, the Coronavirus hit hard and messed up everybody’s plans unfortunately including the 2020 Eurogames in Düsseldorf which had to be cancelled. Well, not “cancelled” so much as “postponed to an undetermined date.” Okay… well maybe they can host it in the fall or something when the timing is more appropriate. Again, outside of their control and that’s understandable. However, recent social media posts (1, 2, 3) from both Eurogames 2020 and the parent organization, the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation (EGLSF) regarding the future of the Düsseldorf Eurogames have shown a clear breakdown in communication and professionalism from both organizations. I’ll spare you the drama, but both organizations have a clear disagreement on how and when the Düsseldorf Eurogames will take place.
This is the kind of drama that lead to the infamous Montreal Outgames and Chicago Gay Games in 2006, two competing LGBTQI sports events less than a month apart, leaving athletes confused, out of a lot of money and at least one host city millions of dollars in debt. Again, more drama.
The problem then, which has never been fully understood or resolved and is now more prominent than ever, is why do we even need these events? While there is certainly no shortage of opinions, none of them really matter as much as the organizational stresses, incompetence and drama are being pushed onto the shoulders of the athletes. That is unacceptable. Covid-19 didn’t cause this problem, but it is forcing event organizers, leaders and members of the community to confront it.
40+ years ago when Tom Waddell created the Gay Games, his mission for such events was relevant and appropriate for that time. That is what made it successful and laid the foundation its success for over 40 years. Yet despite this history, it sure feels like the LGBTQI sports community is still living in 1980s gay America. In 2020, gay and lesbian athletes can compete openly in numerous sports and events on all levels. LGBTQI teams such as West Hollywood Aquatics can compete at USMS Nationals without fear of being harassed or discriminated against. Every day Outsports is sharing articles about an athlete coming out; so many articles in fact that the kinds of “firsts” they write about are becoming more descriptive. It went from “first openly gay college athlete” to “first openly gay woman to compete in an NCAA division I school in Hockey” and so on. Now the situation for transgender and intersex athletes is significantly different than that of gay and lesbian athletes, the awareness and representation of transgender and intersex athletes in mainstream sports is more prominent than ever.
The needs for LGBTQI athletes are vastly different in 2020 than 1980. Yet, it is clear that organizers of LGBTQI oriented sports events and community leaders don’t seem to understand that. This has become vastly clear since 2006, especially obvious in the last five years and now the subject of an exhausting and embarrassing drama between host and parent body for the 2020 edition of the Eurogames. Taking what should be an internal discussion among leaders and devolving into hastily written, passive aggressive statements plastered on social media for all to see. Again, putting all the stress and drama onto the athletes and people who are contemplating their future participation in the 2021 and 2022 events. This is unacceptable. If this is how you handle your PR in the face of a little turbulence, then how will you handle the organization of the event itself? From the athlete’s perspective, an event should be like Disneyland, where the paying customer should never see you take out the trash and air out your dirty laundry.
So, why are LGBTQI multi-sport events *needed*? I have no shortage of opinions myself, but they’re irrelevant. I will say that there is a lot of opportunity for LGBTQI sports events to make a big impact on the community. While it’s important that such events be economically sustainable, there is a lot more meaning to the events than just money. We’re talking about community and societal change for the better, to take the foundations that people like Tom Waddell have laid and build up on that while adapting to the needs of the community in the present and the future. Carry the history of accomplishments like the first HIV positive athlete to set an athletic world record, same sex pairs in ice skating, pioneering transgender and intersex participation policies that will serve as models for events like the Olympics, professional athletes coming out and living openly; like a torch as you focus on what you can achieve next. It is up to organizations and community leaders that have this torch to figure this out sooner rather than later and move forward. These recurring organizational incompetencies are making athletes reconsider their participation in the events altogether and die hard LGBTQI sports fans myself questioning my own involvement. This diminishes the quality of the movement and leaves the legacies set by the pioneers before us with nothing but disappointment.
By Dirk Smith
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.