In commemoration of Pride Month and the 50th year since the Stonewall Inn riots in New York, Outsports is profiling one out athlete daily who embodies the “Stonewall Spirit,” reflecting the courage of those who launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
After placing sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, gay athlete Dr. Tom Waddell injured his knee during a high jump event at a 1972 Hawaii track meet and moved to San Francisco.
There, he set up his medical practice in the Castro District and joined a gay bowling league which gave him the idea to set up a gay version of the Olympics as a way to raise LGBTQ visibility and combat negative stereotypes.
As a closeted young person growing up in Paterson, N.J. and attending Springfield College in Mass., Waddell said he played football, did gymnastics and ran track to “prove” his masculinity and avoid bullying. But by 1976, he decided he was “interested in presenting a new image” of what it was to be gay in America. So in 1976, Waddell and the man he considered his husband, architect Charles Deaton, came out in People magazine.
Six years later, Waddell created the “Gay Olympics” to both empower and welcome gay and lesbian athletes of all skill levels, and to host educational and art exhibitions.
But just before the first “Gay Olympics” were to take place in San Francisco in 1982, the U.S. Olympic Committee sued him to have the word “Olympics” removed from the event, worried that the gay association would hurt the Olympic brand. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and on June 25, 1987, the justices decided against Waddell, 7-to-2.
By a slimmer margin of 5-to-4, the justices also decided it was not discriminatory to bar gays from using the term “Olympics,” even though police departments and the Special Olympics organization are permitted to do so.
So Waddell renamed the event the “Gay Games” and it has remained ever since.
Waddell, who specialized in infectious diseases, was chief physician at San Francisco’s central emergency facility until giving up the post when he was diagnosed with an HIV-related illness in June of 1986. His health deteriorated during the long legal battle, and just two weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, he died at the age of 49. Waddell was survived by his daughter Jessica and his wife, lesbian athlete Sara Lewinstein, who he married to protect their parental rights.
The quadrennial international LGBTQ sporting event that Waddell launched continues to this day. While the original Gay Games only had 17 sports, it has since blossomed to over 30 with host cities in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The 2022 Gay Games will take place in Hong Kong, the first ever Gay Games to take place in Asia. Organizers hope to change regional attitudes towards LGBTQ people.
In November 2014, the City of San Francisco renamed one of its streets for Waddell. The city’s Department of Health named the Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic. The Federation of Gay Games’ highest honor is called the “Tom Waddell Award.”
Our “Stonewall Spirit” series continues tomorrow and every day during Pride.