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Gay Games Cologne gets an 'A' grade

All I needed to know about my feelings on Gay Games VIII came on the last day. Most of the athletes had already left, and I headed to the soccer and basketball finals. Neumarkt was empty. The train was empty. Melancholy swept over me. The thought of this incredible event ending was several days before a far-off consideration, something I didn’t have to think about; Now it was staring me in the face. A couple tears drained into my eyes as I took that last train ride to the final events of the Games.

The Gay Games offers something you cannot find at an HRC dinner or a GLAAD Awards show. Those events have wonderful aspects of their own, but the Gay Games is something special that a dinner and drinks simply can’t provide. There is a camaraderie at the Gay Games that is hard to find in other corners of the gay community. Walking through Rudolfplatz or down Pfielstrasse, the standoffish attitudes that dominate so many gay neighborhoods and events are a world away. Smiles replace blank stares.

I hope the organizers of the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland took copious notes at these Games, because the organizers of Cologne showed them how amazing a Gay Games can be when it is well-planned and well-executed.

Some people made my trip to the Gay Games particularly wonderful, so I want to thank my partners Dan Pinar and Jim Buzinski – in love and work, they’re the best. Dave Kopay for making me laugh a ton. Loïc L. for working through our language barrier and for putting up with this “stupid American” (and, all you guys in Paris – Loic is your city’s greatest catch!).

Now, onto the grades…

Opening Ceremony: B-
I only stayed for the first half, so keep that in mind. But the fact that the first hour of the ceremony couldn’t hold my attention says a lot. Reports about the second half, including a performance by Taylor Dayne and some great fireworks, were very positive. And the athletes’ energy enthusiasm was contagious. But speech after speech after speech in the first hour killed a lot of that energy. I also heard the athletes couldn’t hear much of what was going on because of bad acoustics; One athlete said he had no idea that John Amaechi or Dave Kopay were there because he couldn’t hear their names announced. That’s unfortunate. The fact that it was only one hour of speeches (instead of three) saved the event from the D grade I gave Chicago for their opening ceremony. Lesson to Cleveland: Keep it to 20 minutes of speeches and intersperse them throughout!

Geographic Representation: A
The thing I was most impressed with was the strong presence of athletes from Latin America. Argentina, Mexico and Brazil were all noticeably present. There was a smattering of athletes from Africa and many from Asia as well. There’s still improvement to be had, but it was really strong.

My Adopted Sport, Track & Field: A+
Wow. In Sydney, the track was excellent; In Chicago, it was nearly a disaster. Montreal was pretty good. But the energy from the crowd and athletes at the venue in Cologne was extraordinary; It was the best energy I saw in Cologne. A big part of that was the two fantastic announcers who for five days kept the crowd informed and upbeat. Ruckus applause rang from the stands as hundreds (if not over 1,000) of people cheered each and every competitor in each race. I can’t think of a way that Track & Field could have been more well-run or a better experience, and many athletes resounded that as the week went on.

On the flip side, Basketball was the worst and would get a D. The location was terrible, the venue was uninspired, and the officiating was atrocious. In addition, the self-chosen divisions were all wrong.

Venues: A-
Some of the sports were in fantastic venues, like Track & Field, Tennis and the Triathlon. Others like Basketball left a lot to be desired. It also would have been great if all of the events could have been within a half-hour trip from the city center; the train ride and walk to Triathlon was almost an hour. What puts this in the “A” level was the incredible center of sports that RheinEnergie Stadion became. Track, Water polo, Field Hockey, Softball, Swimming, Handball, Martial Arts…about half of the sports took place in the same complex, and we have never seen anything like it at a Gay Games.

City Presence: A+
The event succeeded in this area on many levels. First, Gay Games signs were everywhere. I even saw them five hours away in Berlin. They were in train stations, on the street, in businesses. Restaurants, stores and hotels displayed rainbow flags. Athletes wearing red-and-white credentials were everywhere. And the event took over the center of Old Town, with fantastic fairs at Neumarkt and Rudolfplatz.

Media Exposure: B+
Outsports was the only American-based media sponsor of the Games, and as far as I could tell we were the only ones posting daily updates. The local Cologne press offered daily updates in the sports pages, and dozens of media outlets (if not hundreds) were recording and reporting on the events. Still, the lack of American press coverage was disappointing.

Results Reporting: A
The Gay Games site and other organizing sports (e.g., the Gay & Lesbian Tennis Association) did a great job of updating their sites with the latest results and schedules. There were a couple sports where it was lacking (e.g., wrestling), but overall a strong effort.

Beyond the Sports: A+
Rudolfplatz, Neumarkt and the Bermuda Triangle created a fantastic center away from the sports that drew thousands of participants every day and night. Having a central area like this where the athletes choose to spend their time away from their sports enhances the event a hundredfold, and Cologne had this piece of it mapped out perfectly.

Other: A
The rain that fell several afternoons put a literal damper on some events. The organization was stereotypically German: Efficient, exacting and well-run. The energy surrounding the event was extraordinary. Athletes were friendly and volunteers were friendly and informed.

Overall: A
I have been to the Gay Games in Sydney and Chicago and the Outgames in Montreal. Gay Games VIII in Cologne surpassed them all. It’s too bad that under 9,500 athletes participated, because those who chose to say home missed out in a huge way. If you’re reading this and didn’t go to Cologne, book your tickets to Cleveland now.

Jim's view: Yep, it gets an 'A'

It's not always the case that Cyd and I are in agreement on these events, but Gay Games VIII in Cologne get an "A" grade. There was not a whole lot to quibble about.

This was the first truly international gay multi-sport event since the Sydney Gay Games in 2002. In 2006, the Chicago Gay Games was a largely American affair as Europeans chose the competing Outgames in Montreal. It was terrific to see everyone come together again.

Cologne was an ideal city to host the event -- cosmopolitan but not overwhelming, with an excellent public transit system and public hubs (Rudolfplatz and Neumarkt) that served as meeting areas for athletes, fans and locals alike. There has been nothing like it since Vancouver 1990 turned the B.C. stadium into an athletes' village. In Cologne, there were more options than just the bar scene and it created a friendly, accessible vibe, where it was easy to mingle and meet new people. It's a model all future Gay Games must emulate.

The sports venue were, with few exceptions (as Cyd alluded to), first-rate and using the sports university near Rheinenergie Stadium to hold about half the events was genius. It was incredibly easy to go from event to event out there and this also gave athletes time to catch other sports during breaks; the result was much more mingling of jocks than at past Games. On one day, I was able to catch swimming, diving, water polo, martial arts, powerlifting, handball, bodybuilding, track and field and soccer.

One sign that these were successful Games was the very low level of bitching. People love to complain and at past Gay Games I got an earful. In Cologne, though, I heard very little in the way of complaints. The basketball players did not like their setup and there were complaints about lack of ice and slow medical response at track and field, but overall people were content with the way things ran.

The only shame is that more people did not attend. Cologne, unfortunately, suffered from a perception that it wasn't Berlin, Paris or Amsterdam and I know people who decided not to attend because of that. It was their loss. I guarantee that had they known how cool the scene was to be, they would have eagerly booked their tickets.

Hats off to the Cologne organizers and the myriad volunteers (they stood out in their orange shirts). And kudos to the Federation of Gay Games. I've had my differences with them in the past, but in choosing Cologne, the FGG hit a grand slam.

We would love to hear from others who attended, whether as an athlete or fan, and let us know your experiences.