International arrivals, political news conferences and attention-grabbing headlines — six years after the historic decision to award the Gay Games to Asia for the first time, it’s showtime for Hong Kong.

For Federation of Gay Games co-president Joanie Evans, speaking to Outsports a day after jetting in on a flight from London, there might not be the razzle-dazzle that organizers were dreaming of back in 2017, but she is more than reassured by the mood she has found in the city.

“When you listen to people here talking about the Games, you can detect the excitement in their voices,” she says. “That’s always what we’ve been aiming for.”

A couple takes a selfie ahead of Thursday’s Gay Games Hong Kong news conference.

Media outlets have certainly become much more animated in their coverage as the start of the 15 sports competitions approaches. A group of local Hong Kong legislators attracted reporters to their own press call Wednesday, where they claimed the Gay Games posed a risk to national security and should be called off at the 11th hour.

Pro-Beijing politician Junius Ho even went so far as to brand the Games a “criminal activity” on ideological grounds. There were calls for an investigation into the source of the event’s funding and for Regina Ip — the only senior council figure expected to attend Friday’s opening ceremony — to resign.

Alongside other concerns being raised, such as the relatively low levels of registered participants, you might think Evans, the FGG and the team of volunteers on the ground would be nervous about what to expect between now and Nov. 11.

That’s not the case. “I saw an article about the ‘anti-LGBTQ lawmakers’ but the feedback that’s coming back from that, in terms of messages sent to the organizers, has been positive,” says Evans.

“At our press conference on Thursday, there were a lot of questions about national security, questions that suggest that the Gay Games is going to cause trouble in some way.

“That’s not what we’re here for and we’ve made that very clear. We’ve asked all our participants to treat the country like anywhere else that you would travel to as a tourist.

“People who are against the Games are still going to say things, but it’s favorable apart from that.”

Within the Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the signage is all up and accreditation is in full swing. Athletes, including those on the FGG scholarship scheme, are stopping by to see the spaces, and volunteers are busy with a variety of jobs.

Outside the main venue, there aren’t many clues that the world’s most inclusive multisports event is set to begin in this densely populated city.

But given the circumstances, if awareness around these Games reaches millions of citizens in Hong Kong and across Asia in a more subtle way — not through a political war of words — that’s no bad thing, says Evans.

“Often with the Gay Games locations, we find that most people don’t know it’s actually there until we’re in the middle of it,” she says.

“For Hong Kong, it’s really about being here. We want our participants to have a good time and as we get near the closing ceremony, we’ll begin to know the effect the Games is having.”

Hong Kong Gay Games volunteers gather for a group photo at the news conference.

Organizers say they will have around 2,300 athletes taking part, with overseas visitors from the U.S., Australia, the U.K, and South Korea. The proportion of Asian competitors is higher than ever for a Games.

Guadalajara is also staging Gay Games XI — a first for Latin America, and a first co-hosting arrangement for the FGG — and expects in the region of 4,000 participants.

“Here in Hong Kong, we have LGBTQ groups from countries like Cambodia, which haven’t really been recognized before at a Games,” says Evans.

“One of the most popular events will be dragon boat racing, which will have a lot of corporate teams. In some ways, that’s a good thing as it just gets companies involved in a way that means they can support their employees.

“There have been registration discounts for people who live and work in Hong Kong, so it’s been made easier for them to attend. This is an Asian Gay Games and we hope it will make a difference in the region.

“I think that’s what a lot of people won’t get, especially if they haven’t been to a Gay Games before. They don’t know that feeling of being able to be your true authentic self in the country where you live, rather than having to go somewhere else to be yourself.”

There is limited advertising to reflect the fact that the first Gay Games to be held in Asia is happening in Hong Kong.

The ambition to provide a platform for everyone to achieve their ‘personal best’ lies at the heart of the Gay Games ethos. Yet activists have argued that the motivations of Games makers in Hong Kong are more political in nature.

In an Outsports op-ed that ran in June, five human rights advocates claimed local organizers had “betrayed the values and principles” of the Games, and had “aligned themselves with pro-authoritarian figures responsible for widespread persecution against the people of Hong Kong.”

The crackdown on free speech that followed the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong in 2020 — a reaction to 15 months of pro-democracy protests — has undoubtedly changed the civil climate compared to the heady days of 2017.

Despite this, there has been progress in terms of LGBTQ equality. A landmark ruling in September has paved the way for same-sex partnerships to be recognized, while there has also been a win for trans people wanting to change the gender on their ID cards without having had reassignment surgery.

The petition presented this week by Ho and his associates railed against these advances as examples of “sexual indulgence” and alleged that the Games was an “attempt to undermine ethical values surrounding gender, marriage, and family and carry out a color revolution”.

Yet within hours, Ip had posted to Facebook and dismissed all the claims, labeling the attack as a “malicious smear”. On Friday, she will stand alongside Evans at the opening ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium, a venue provided to the Games by the Hong Kong government itself.

The FGG co-president is keeping faith in the power of sport. “We hope that the coming together of different people in competition changes hearts and minds, and that by the end of the Games, the LGBTQ community here has a bigger voice than before.”