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Roger Brigham gives insights into the failed Gay Games and Outgames events merger

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Roger Brigham

When the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) and Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (GLISA) recently announced that they had ended two years of talk on running a combined global sports and cultural festival in 2018, the wheels were set in motion for plans for Gay Games X to go forward, and critics predictably began to criticize both organizations and their failure to reach agreement.

Most of the criticism has been based on feelings, rather than fact; and some of it has bordered on counter-productive spite. I'd like to present my thoughts on this topic and my hopes for the future. I have been connected to the subject since it was first raised through my various roles since 2003 with the FGG, Team San Francisco, Wrestlers WithOut Borders and Golden Gate Wrestling Club. Before joining the FGG board late last season, I reported on the talks, events and organizations extensively. The thoughts I offer here are my own, not necessarily representative of the organizations with which I am involved.

Why is One Quadrennial Event (1QE, where the Gay Games and Outgames merge events) not only desirable, but inevitable and even necessary?

Some things are too big to fail, but others are too big to fly. The bigger an event is, the more components and disciplines and participants it requires, and the greater and greater demands it places on its host for adequate mass transit, adequate accommodations, adequate facilities, and sufficient volunteers and other workers. The history of the Olympic Games (which take about 2.5 weeks to complete) and the Gay Games suggest a multi-sport festival maxes out at about 12,000 athletes and 30 to 40 disciplines. And the bigger it gets, the fewer cities capable of hosting it.

That is the range at which the original 1QE, maxed out in the years 1994 to 2006: the range sustainable by LGBT sports organizations and hosts alike.

The mainstream Olympic Games for elite athletes, through massive government underwriting, corporate sponsorship and television revenues, are just able to sustain that once every two years (Winter Olympics every two years; Summer Olympics in the other even numbered years). LGBT sports, drawing on a far smaller participatory population base and with a fraction of the government and sponsorship backing, are barely able to sustain that only once every four years -- and even then only through the massive "sweat equity" put into it by the volunteer athletes and organizations who step up to help the hosts.

We ceased having 1QE when Montreal organizers, who had won the bidding rights for the 2006 Gay Games, declined after two years of talks to sign a license agreement and announced the creation of the Outgames, originally called that without the word "World" in front of it, and envisioned at the time as a one-time event.

Organizers said they expected to get 16,000 to 24,000 athletes, artists and conference-goers; they wound up with 8,000-something and lost multiple millions. World Outgames 2 in Copenhagen drew half that but finished in the black, and the lower registration numbers were reflected by less competition in the biggest sports and competition rendered virtually meaningless in the smaller individual sports.

We will get to 1QE one way or another simply because the marketplace will force it; 2QEs are simply not sustainable. I believe how we get there and when is entirely in GLISA's hands.

Why wasn't 1QE agreement reached for 2018?

There are differences between GLISA and its World Outgames, and the FGG and its Gay Games, which are small in number but enormous in importance. Ultimately they were not overcome.

The two biggest negotiation points on which agreement was not reached regarded site selection and the budget model.

The site vote is the beginning of an intense partnership that will last for 5 years. GLISA, which has never had a competitive site-selection process, wanted to allow votes to be cast by proxy or electronically. The FGG favored the practice it has had in past cycles that had all voters physically present for the multiple days of presentation, review, analysis and discussion of the bids, in order for them to better educate themselves and exchange information and thoughts with each other before making their decisions.

In order to meet its legal fiduciary responsibilities, the FGG had sought to have professional, third-party evaluations of the two organizations and their respective brands made at the start of talks to serve as a basis for deciding how any revenue streams would be split. Not until late in the final weekend of the talks did GLISA agree to organizational assessments, but even still wanted to stipulate that the first $500,000 would be split evenly before any assessment would kick in. It was pretty fantastic to imagine that the total revenue flow would come close to that sum, rendering the assessment moot. And the FGG also felt that the organizations should share the financial risks with any host. FGG proposed setting the 50-50 split point at $200,000, but GLISA declined that offer and has said it could not work with the model.

Those were the bridges -- financial issues and site selection -- the organizations did not pass before it was time to launch the 2018 bid process. Hence the talks ceased.

What if somehow those bridges had been crossed in time? What would the event look like?

Hard to say. The FGG and GLISA have had remarkably different relationships with their hosts. The FGG is very hands on up to and all the way through the Gay Games, and that gives its athletes and artists strong control over their events; if a tournament is not well organized at a Gay Games, the athletes themselves have the power to step up and make it better for the next go round.

GLISA hands off more power to its hosts, and especially late in the process when a World Outgames (WOG) host is trying to make budget cuts while accommodating conferences, the LGBT sensibilities that manifest themselves in the Gay Games' motto of "Participation, Inclusion and Personal Best" can get lost in the shuffle. Hence the collapsing of tournament brackets in the 2009 Copenhagen volleyball tournament -- a situation referred to at the time by Outsports as a "cluster-fuck."

Who suffers the most from the dueling events?

In general, all sports organizations and athletes, but most notably European Gay & Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF) and athletes in small individual sports such as martial arts, powerlifting, wrestling and bodybuilding.

The formation of EGLSF was inspired by the experiences European athletes had at the Vancouver Outgames in 1990. Its premier event, the EuroGames, was founded to be held in all non-Gay Games years, giving it three events in every quadrennial cycle.

In March of 2004, newly formed GLISA was getting ready to announce at the Gay & Lesbian Athletics Foundation conference in Boston that there would be a second Outgames, and that it would be held in 2010. I remember sitting in the hotel lounges at the time, hearing Montreal supporters who remained sympathetic to the Gay Games screaming back at GLISA reps when they heard the plan. "You hold it in 2010 and it will send a statement that you are trying to destroy the Gay Games," one of them protested.

The next morning GLISA announced WOG 2 would be held in 2009, and then they would be held every four years after that.

Which means that the EuroGames schedule, EGLSF's most high profile opportunity to reach its constituents, was cut by one third. They lost one cycle in 2009; next year they will be preempted by the Antwerp World Outgames.

The others most hurt are athletes in the individual sports -- the cutting edge of "sports diversity" that falls victim when tight budgets and sparse registrations are at play.

Martial arts, for instance, was not even represented in 2006 in Montreal, drew a reported 25 competitors in 2009 (the Gay Games typically get 100 or more), and will be dropped again by Antwerp. Montreal drew just 24 wrestlers -- less than a fourth of what the Gay Games drew and half of what GGWC drew for its annual club tournament -- and then Copenhagen had just 9 wrestlers, the biggest athlete more than twice the size of the smallest, making matches highly risky for participants. And yet, despite requests by athletes for accurate estimates of the numbers of fellow competitors they may expect, Antwerp, which says it brings together athletes in "unprecedented numbers," says on its web site that it expects 100 wrestlers. Please: in 2009, Wrestlers WithOut Borders literally could not even give away two scholarships for Copenhagen. No takers.

How soon could we have 1QE?

2018.

What? I thought you said it was too late. What would it take?

Cooperative action, not the sort of counter-productive action EGLSF urged in its newsletter to members asking them to "stop the bidding process for 2017/2018" by writing to bidding cities and make it "clear to them that rather than being the center of LGBTIQ sports they will be the reason of a split of our community."

It also requires GLISA and the FGG to both realize what they are best at and what is best for the global LGBT sports community.

The information sent last month to cities interested in bidding for Gay Games X in 2018 specifies that hosts can look at organizing conferences in addition to the sports and cultural programs, so long as they do not interfere with the focus on sports and culture. The information says the hosts may work with third parties.

GLISA has successfully put on conferences at World Outgames and has succeeded in helping the sports mission in under-served areas such as Asia-Pacific with Continental Outgames. Not so much success putting on global sports competitions, a market already saturated with the Gay Games, EuroGames, international single-sports tournaments, and local annual multi-sport festivals.

GLISA could drop plans for 2017, enabling EuroGames to regain that's part of its schedule; put on a human rights conference at the 2018 Gay Games; and concentrate on growing its continental events and outreach.

I would love to see it happen. I've been privileged (and often frustrated) to watch the FGG in the past few years as the organization matured, refined its site selection process and license agreements, and raised tens of thousands of dollars to bring athletes from repressive areas to the Gay Games. I've been privileged to work on sports committees providing critical oversight to the quadrennial event. I think too often we fail to recognize what remarkable control we queer athletes have over our own major events -- far more than our mainstream athletes in their elite events. And I've been privileged to volunteer a majority of my days the past nine years coaching and changing the lives of so many at-risk athletes through the mechanism of the sports organizations I work in that were created as a result of the Gay Games.

I have also followed the evolution of the Outgames, both world and continental, and though I see the World Outgames as a failed athletic experiment; I have unswervingly spoken up in praise of the success of the Continental Outgames in underserved areas, and have said that conferences, so long as they don't cut into athletic programs, should be seen as a desired and organic part of our event and a valued additiion to our legacy.

Finally, rather than trying to reinvent the 1QE that has served us for three decades, people who would criticize the event should join the FGG, share the labor, and help shape the destiny of the Games. If you don't like the direction they are going, jump aboard and put your hands on the wheel. Don't just bitch at the driver.

Roger Brigham is the founder of Equality Coaching Alliance and writes for the Bay Area Reporter.