(This story was published in 2004).
Bruce Hayes and Mark Tewksbury have a lot in common. They’re both Olympic gold medal swimmers, both openly and proudly gay and both have done much to break down stereotypes in the sports world. But they’ve come down on opposite sides in a dispute that exposes the rift in the gay sports movement.
On Monday, the Federation of Gay Games will conduct voting to pick the site for the 2006 Gay Games. Either Chicago or Los Angeles will be named the host, four months after the movement was thrown in turmoil when the Federation and Montreal split in an acrimonious dispute that took the event away from the Canadian city.
Montreal organizers are pushing ahead with plans for their own sports event, tentatively called Rendez-vous Montreal 2006 Games, to be held July 29-Aug. 5. This will put the event at nearly the same time as the Gay Games. Chicago’s bid calls for the Games to be July 15-22. The Los Angeles bid designates July 8-15 as its first choice.
Tewksbury, who won Olympic gold in 1992, is Montreal’s co-president and the public face for the Montreal group. Hayes, a 1984 gold medal winner, last week reaffirmed his support for the Gay Games movement in whatever city is picked.
Their stances are indicative of what appears to be a central fact: Most athletes will be forced to choose sides in 2006. With the events held so close together, it’s difficult to imagine many athletes or teams able to afford to attend both. Factoring in costs for travel, accommodations, food, entertainment and registration to attend two one-week events could easily top $3,000 per person.
Montreal has the organizational advantage since its organizers are the same people who won the Gay Games VII bid in 2001, and they’ve been planning for more than two years. The group is proposing early registration starting June 1, and has announced a three-year sponsorship deal (terms unannounced) with Canadian beer company Labatt. The organizers are also budgeting for 14,000 athletes and 2,000 cultural participants, making it the largest gay sporting event ever.
The size of the Montreal event was one reason that contract talks with the Federation broke down. The last two Gay Games have lost significant amounts of money--each came close to being canceled--as bold visions hit head on with economic reality. It is unclear whether Montreal can meet its budgetary goals if large numbers of athletes choose to attend the Gay Games instead.
There is no doubt, however, that the Montreal organizers are posing a direct threat to the Gay Games, openly questioning whether Chicago or Los Angeles could pull off an event with only two years of preparation time. Montreal organizers have also set up what they bill as a global think tank for the future of gay sports, composed of 19 members.
The makeup of the group, though, is anything but representative. Ten members are from Canada, four from Europe (including three from Berlin) and one from Australia. The U.S., which boasts the largest number of gay sports leagues, organizations and athletes, has only four members. This will likely lead to the 2006 events having a top-heavy U.S. presence at Gay Games and a dominant Canadian presence at Montreal. Where athletes from Europe and elsewhere will go is anybody’s guess.
The Federation’s biggest draw is the Gay Games themselves. The “brand” has a major cachet in the gay sports world, allowing the event to be a success with athletes despite the institutional screwups in past Games. This is illustrated by Juan Ramirez, coach of Chicago’s gay water polo team, who told the Canadian gay magazine XTRA: "If it's between Montreal and the Gay Games, most likely the team will vote for the Gay Games. It's the Gay Games. It's like going to the Olympics. I mean who doesn't want to go the Olympics? It's a milestone for us."
But first the Federation must choose a 2006 host, and the two cities offer very different financial models. The Los Angeles bid envisions costs of $12.5 million (revised down 15% after Federation voters questioned the figure as high) for 10,000 participants, while Chicago comes in at half that, $6.2 million, for 12,000 participants. Los Angeles proposes a paid staff of 26, Chicago nine.
Chicago proposes registration fees that would be the highest in Games history, with the average between $210 and $260, and some as high as $380. The bid committee justifies this as a way to keep the event financially viable by making participants pick up a larger share of the tab; these fees have raised concerns with Federation voting members. Los Angeles projects an average fee of $126 per athlete. While Chicago anticipates total revenue of $800,000 from ticket sales to the opening and closing ceremonies and to attend sporting events, Los Angeles’ budget calls for what appears to be an unrealistic $4.9 million.
Whichever city is chosen, the cash-starved Federation will be receiving a much-needed financial jolt, as the total license fee paid by the winning bidder will be about $400,000.
It’s difficult to gauge who will win the bid, and each prospective host has been peppered with questions by Federation voters. Whichever host is chosen will be running a sprint and not a marathon to put on an event in 30 months. Raising money, getting the word out and planning for such an event is tough under normal circumstances, but will be made tougher given the intense competition from Montreal for the hearts and minds of gay athletes.