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Moment #5: First Gay Games are held in San Francisco

Gay Games I medalists

Part of Outsports’ series on our 100 most important moments in gay sports history.

Multisports, 1982: Dr. Tom Waddell was an Olympic decathlete who had a dream of holding a sports event geared to gay and lesbians, to shatter the stereotype of what being an athlete meant. He was thwarted in his attempts to call them the Gay Olympics and instead settled on Gay Games. The first were held in San Francisco from Aug. 28 to Sept. 2, 1982. There were 1,350 athletes from 10 countries competing in 17 sports.

The Opening Ceremonies were held in Kezar Stadium (once the home of the 49ers) and "Tales of the City" author Armistead Maupin was the master of ceremonies and Tina Turner performed. Gene Dermody, a longtime force in the Federation of Games, and a gay sports pioneer remembers that day vividly, writing in 2002:

“It is hard after these 20 years, being so jaded, to convey the absolute feeling of liberation and joy I felt that day at Kezar Stadium. I have never experienced that level of exhilaration since. As preparations were being made inside the stadium, some 1300 athletes mulled outside for some three hours, in the typical cool fog of San Francisco. We could hear the wild cheering inside, but were not yet sure what they were excited about. Could it be ‘us’?. Many ‘travel-challenged’ like me, who thought California summer weather was hot and humid, arrived dressed only in shorts, t-shirts, and back-packs, not prepared for the 50 degree cold winds.

But we didn’t notice our goose bumps. We were too busy checking out the other athletes (where did they all come from?). Like the kids we never allowed ourselves to be, we were soon making new friends, sizing up the caliber of competition, and networking with our alter egos. The buzz was incessant, but it was a markedly ‘different’ banter for this group: “Where did you wrestle? Who was coaching at Bakersfield? What weight would Blakeley compete at? How much weight did you cut? Would Title IX kill Princeton’s program? When are the weigh-ins? “..etc… It was as if -everyone- was finally speaking ‘my’ language, and I had finally found ‘my’ lost tribe!

As we were ushered into the stadium by ‘city’ for the ‘March of the Athletes’, I was handed one of the New York City flags to lead Team NY’s athletes. We heard the ‘Olympic Theme’ (was it Chariots of Fire or the other John Williams piece? I don’t remember), but a warm sun ominously exploded out from behind the clouds, as if on queue, to announce the entry of gods into Valhalla. I vividly remember Tina Turner singing on stage, and my crying profusely for no apparent reason. I had finally come ‘home’ after a very long exile.”

I asked longtime gay sports activist Roger Brigham for his recollections. Brigham ran into Gay Games bureaucracy and was not allowed to wrestle in competition. But he still remembers the import of the first Gay Games.

The words Waddell spoke have long faded from my memory, but what remains etched in my mind was the he was clearly an articulate visionary. He saw things as they should be and worked to make them so. And that day he spoke about all that those who had stepped up to compete had done to change the world through their actions. In this sense, it was unlike many of the other "most important" moments in LGBT sports history: there was real self-awareness that what was happening was different, that having been done, nothing would be the same again.

In his opening remarks, Waddell captured the theme that has sustained the Gay Games through nearly 30 years of changes:

Welcome to a dream that is now reality.

Welcome to a celebration of freedom.

These Gay Games, the first of their kind, are offered to Gay and enlightened people from all over the world. They are a departure from other events of this scope and magnitude in that the underlying philosophy is one of self-fulfillment and a spirit of friendship.

This is a first; it is our beginning, and as such, we expect these Games to set a solid precedent for future Games that are exemplary for wholesome and healthy athletics, devoid of the notion that beating someone is the sole criterion for winning. Participation makes us all winners.

I have been to all six Gay Games since 1990 and continue to be inspired by the vision and example set by Waddell.

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