(This story was published in 2006).

A Gay Games perspective: The topography of Chicago can best be described as flat and that’s also an appropriate adjective for Gay Games VII, which concluded Saturday with the Closing Ceremonies at a sunbaked Wrigley Field before 20,000 fans and athletes.

These were the fifth Games I’ve attended and I would rank them behind New York (1994) and Sydney (2002), and ahead of Vancouver (1990) and Amsterdam (1998). This is an overall ranking, taking into account all factors, from sports to visibility to atmosphere. From a personal athletic standpoint, I never had a better time.

Athletes from outside the U.S. were few and far between, estimated at 2,500-3,000, the fallout from a split in the gay sports movement. In comparison, Team Chicago had 2,500 athletes by itself out of 12,000, making these more like the American Games. Missing was the diversity seen at past Games with thousands of athletes from all over the world; I especially missed seeing the Dutch swim team.

None of this was the fault of the Chicago organizers, who should be applauded for pulling the event off with two years less than normal to prepare. Chicago won the bid when Montreal reneged on its deal with the Federation of Gay Games and decided to host a rival OutGames, which start July 29. Chicago had nothing to do with the split, but stepped up to ensure that the Games tradition did not die.

Chicago media report that the Games will either break even or net a small profit, quite a contrast from Amsterdam and Sydney, which were financial basket cases that left hundreds of creditors burned. It is clear that the U.S. model of heavy corporate sponsorship is the only way for the Games to be financially feasible, and let’s hope that Cologne representative were paying attention as the German city gears up to host Gay Games VIII in 2010.

It was hard to tell the Gay Games were even in town unless you knew beforehand. Signage was few and far between and even the facilities weren’t well-marked. Games co-executive director Kevin Boyer made a good point when he said you can’t have Olympics-size visibility without an Olympics-size budget, but the event still was swallowed up in a city as large as Chicago.

As with every Gay Games, the sports competitions were uneven. Lars Rains, a New York city cop and track athlete, echoed everyone I spoke with who said the track and field events were the most disorganized and poorly run they had ever seen (“disaster” was the most commonly used word). Gatorade sponsored ice hockey, but the drink was nowhere to be found at the venue. Softball players, meanwhile, complained about rock-strewn fields with no dugouts, while they enviously eyed empty pristine fields near Navy Pier.

On the other hand, volleyball players I spoke with raved about their facilities at Navy Pier, while the pool facilities at the University of Illinois-Chicago appeared first-rate. At every venue I attended I saw teams of medical people and physical therapists, all of whom gave first-rate care to athletes.

On a personal level, these were the most satisfying Games I participated in as an athlete. Cyd and I formed an Outsports competitive flag football team, and we went 5-1 and won the gold medal. I loved everyone on my team, and it was awesome to win the gold with Cyd, Outsports web developer Rory Ray and my longtime friend and defensive co-captain Matthew Feitshans. I fell in football love with my center, Corey Johnson, from New York, who caught about 45 passes in six games and seemed to have an inexhaustible energy. The capper was having former NFL player Esera Tuaolo on the team – what an ambassador for the sport!

The highlight of the tournament was our round-robin game with the Chicago Flames. Imagine the Bears-Packers or Raiders-Chiefs and you get a sense of the intensity anytime a team I quarterback plays the Flames. The game got added fuel when the Flames’ quarterback told USA Today (yes, a national newspaper mentioned gay flag football), “I hope [Tuaolo’s] not ashamed to be on the team that wins the silver (medal), because we’re gonna win it all.”

Not that we needed motivation, but the comment got us intensely focused … until the first drive, when the Flames marched down in four plays for a 7-0 lead. We settled down and the score was 20-20 heading into the final two minutes. Then the real fun began.

On fourth and 8, I fired high to Anthony Castro, a 19-year-old receiver who is that rarest of jocks – out on his high school football team. He made a catch that Cyd correctly described as “sick.” He went up, took the ball from the defender, cradled it in his right arm, used his left to balance himself on the ground and stop his knee from touching, then ran forward an addition 10 yards. The Chicago defense could only shake its collective head. Two plays later I hit Zach Brott for a 30-yard score and a 27-20 lead.

Chicago, as is its nature, would not quit and they got down to our 2-yard line with one play left. Ray, our rusher, took away the first option and forced a pass to the center, who turned to reach the ball across the end zone. But Cyd was in perfect position and he grabbed the flag a half-yard short (I was watching down the sidelines and the call was correct). Players on both teams erupted, us in joy and the Flames in disbelief; a couple of Chicago players acted like Grade A jackasses, dropping f-bombs on the officials in a disgraceful act of unsportsmanship. These guys should be ashamed of themselves and need to realize that it’s only a game.

I had mentioned Tuaolo, who acted like a magnet for athletes, fans and officials, not only at football but everywhere there were Games events. At the closing at Wrigley Field, people were going up to him to have their pictures taken or to have him sign shirts and programs. “We love you!” was something I heard a lot.

It meant a lot to him to be able to participate openly as a gay athlete, without having to censor himself. He was a great player and teammate, though the nearly 300-pounder joked that, “flag football is a skinny man’s game.” After we beat New York for the gold, both of us turned to each other with tears in our eyes and embraced. It’s a memory I’ll long remember. –Jim Buzinski

Talk about a family affair: The Integrated Water Systems ice hockey team, nicknamed the Left Wings, featured seven members of one family. Here’s the scoop:

–Kathy Seaman is the goalie, and she married Jen Putney.
–Kathy has three kids who played on the team: Rebekah, Bobby and Mary.
–Jen’s brother, Ted, played, along with his wife, Rebecca.

The team hails from Wolfeboro, N.H., a city of about 8,000, and advanced to the gold medal game in the men’s recreation division, but lost to the Boston Lobsters. (Click on picture for larger view). –Ross Forman

Marathon men and women: The last event in the Gay Games was the marathon, which started bright and early at 6 a.m. on July 22. I was impressed by the number of people who showed up to cheer the runners. Fortunately the weather cooled down and the rain had stopped. It was a perfect day to run a marathon.

I had a chance to speak to ultra-marathoner Donna Perkins, who was the second woman to cross the finish line. For Donna, running a marathon is just a warm-up. She’s used to competing in races that are usually 50 miles, sometimes up to 100 miles.

Donna’s first 100 mile event was the Western States Endurance Run. This grueling 24 hour epic through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range consisted of twenty-two foot downhills and nineteen foot uphills.

“As a prize you get a sterling silver belt buckle with a cougar on it.” Donna remarked. ”It’s absolutely beautiful. I did have friends ask me, you mean you ran 100 miles for a belt buckle?”

Donna credits her high pain threshold as the reason she can compete in extremely long distances. In fact, she once ran a race with a broken leg.

“I stepped into a rut and I actually physically saw my leg bowl in the lower part. I knew it wasn’t good, but I didn’t feel anything at the time because of my pain threshold and endorphins. So I just kept going on it for 15 miles I ran and walked on a broken leg until I could come to the next aid station.”

Donna had a great Gay Games. In addition to the marathon, she competed in the 10 and 5k road races as well as the off road biking. –Ronit Bezalel

Chicago Diesel Daisies at the Marathon: While I was waiting for the marathoners to cross the line (definitely not a short wait like the 100 meter dash), I spoke to members of Chicago’s Diesel Daises flag football team. I vaguely remembering playing them years ago and having my butt kicked. I quit flag football shortly thereafter.

The Diesel Daises were at the marathon to support some of their team members. Despite the early morning, they were quite jovial, having won the bronze in the recreational flag football division.

With an average age of 40 years, the Diesel Daises’ motto is “football, friendship, and forgetting your age.”

“This team has a great community spirit,” said Linda Howitzer who has been with the Diesel Daises since the beginning. Linda is extremely tough on the field. She broke her finger in the semi-final game, and played through it.

Watch for an upcoming documentary about the Diesel Daises, a Chicago hometown favorite. –Ronit Bezalel