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AND THE GOLD MEDAL GOES TO.....
by: memo menos
Indeed I was so struck I made sure to attend the Games in Sydney in 2002. As a member of the media, I was treated to all up close and personal view of the many sport events, as well as the culture and creativity that flow when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of gays and lesbians gather for a special week of interaction. It's like a big family reunion, with
in-laws from all over the globe.
So when at the closing ceremonies in Sydney, the baton was handed over to Montreal for the 2006 Games I had great expectations. Having been to the fine city, I was aware of the special charm and flair Montreal and French Canadiens could bring to the event. With Amsterdam and Sydney preceding it, they had a huge task on which to follow through, but I was certain the city with the most European influence in North America could carry on the tradition.
Then in 2004 the Federation of Gay Games announced it had revoked Montreal's license and granted the 2006 games to Chicago. Montreal, partnered with GLISA, the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Alliance, and vowed to go forward with its own version of an international gay sporting festival and the OUTGAMES were born.
This article does not endeavor to delve into the cause or the blame for the split. Much has already been written about the dispute. Suffice it to say --it had a lot to do with money and ego, and it's too bad the two organizations GLISA and FEDERATION OF GAY GAMES could not reconcile their differences and pool their resources. Both could have benefited from the cooperation.
Nevertheless, as media, we were excited that two events of this magnitude would be taking place on our very continent, within weeks of each other. The world was coming to Norht America, whether Chicago, Montreal, or both for one hell of a sporting summer.
And with the progressive evolution of gay television,perhaps at last the magic could be extended to those not lucky enough to attend in person. The experiences I had in Sydney and Amsterdam were so meaningful --every gay person should experience the community, the inspiration, and the moment of this kind of event at least once. And if not in person, then broadcast television would be the next best thing.
Gay Games Chicago chose early on the select QTV as its broadcast partner, a decision that would later haunt them. Q, it seems, was not up to the task, folding up its tent and going bye-bye two months before the start of Gay Games 2006. That left Chicago scrambling for a broadcast partner and at the last minute, local NBC affiliate NBC5 stepped in to replace QTV.
They did a decent job, broadcasting the Opening Ceremonies on their website. But for the most part, coverage was local. LOGO used the occasion to launch its CBS "gay" news division, instead of broadcasting a more comprehensive view of the games. REEL GAY negotiated with Gay Games Chicago for two years to bring news of the weeklong event to our national audience to no avail. Perhaps it was for the best.
When we arrived, there was no hint of the event in the windy city. Unlike Amsterdam and Sydney, where banners and volunteers greeted athletes and others arriving for the Games at the airport itself, Chicago had no welcome mat anywhere to be found. Even driving by cab through the heart of the city down Michigan Avenue, past the host Hilton Hotel, there was hardly a sign or banner. There were plenty for the King Tut exhibition, or the Summer Concert series in Millennium park, but for Game participants nary a word.
This theme unfortunately continued throughout the week. Venues were spread across the city, and few, it any had any visible notice from the outside of the building. Most were accessible by public transportation, primarily the "L", but there was not so much as a sign at the various stations indicating which direction to walk to get to a Gay Games venue. Forget about volunteers to great and guide you at these stations. They were non-existent.
Having been at two previous games in foreign countries, this experience was unacceptable.
Once one got to the venues, it was rare to find them very participant friendly. Whilst in Amsterdam and Sydney, venues almost always had volunteer booths, refreshment, entertainment, and even beer gardens, in addition to the professional sports facility itself. Chicago's venues were lucky to have air conditioning and operational scoreboards.
And the weather made the lack of air conditioning unbearable. Whilst Gay Games Chicago could hardly be blamed for the record heat and humidity-heat indexes Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were over 100 degrees F-they could be faulted for picking venues that were sub-par for these kinds of weather conditions, which are not all that uncommon in Chicago for the summer. To their credit, the staff did mobilize "emergency" water rations at each of the venues to limit the number of athletes and spectators who succombed to heat exhaustion. On a comical note, we found an easy way to locate a venue was to look for the ambulances that were planted at the entrance of each sport in Chicago.
The lack of a banner welcoming you to the venue, or a PA system to announce the goings-on, or a concession stand to imbibe in some food and beverage while watching wrestling or soccer or hockey were minor inconveniences one could endure, but at the end of each competition, the medal ceremonies were essentially afterthoughts. There were no 1st, 2nd, and 3rd boxes on which the athletes could exalt in their achievements. Rarely was there a banner for a backdrop. It was poorly done all around, as if no one in Chicago had ever been to a Gay Games before.
To be fair, the Chicago committee has only two years to prepare.And they were obviously concerned about breaking even, a feat apparently not usually accomplished for the Gay Games. It is reported, that both Sydney and Amsterdam lost money when the final tallies were done.
The budget, or lack thereof, was glaringly apparent at the Opening Ceremonies. Held in Chicago's Soldier Field, the show promised entertainers like Megan Mullaly, Margaret Cho, Andy Bell, and Jodey Watley. What it lacked was a stage, any lighting, or any semblance of entertainment. Even the parade of athletes, a moment of great drama at previous games, was lackluster and uneventful.
For instance, in Amsterdam, an announcer trumpeted the entrance of each delegation with a rthym and flair that worked up to the great climax when all the athletes had taken their place in the stadium. She rallied the audience for special moments. I'll never forget her words, "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time the delegations of India and Pakistan have agreed to march together." Then as the India and Pakistan banners danced into the stadium, the audience went wild.
There were no such moments in Chicago. The announcer and the video crews had trouble keeping up with each other. Delegations were announced before they appeared on the big screen. Many times the camera operators failed to even capture the placards of the teams entering the field. The audience was left out in the cold, or rather the heat. It was an uncomfortable 85 degrees in Soldier's Field that night.
What's more, the show dragged on for four hours. The pacing was terrible. There were too many political speeches interspersed between what little entertainment there was. Mayor Daly delivered an inspiring address, but the week disproved his assertion that the city of Chicago fully supported the event. As members of the media, we were not given passes for travel on the public transportation throughout the week. They were not even made available for us to purchase when we picked up our credentials. What did they think, only NBC5 would be covering? We had to track them down on our own, and while inexpensive, accommodations could easily have been made. The city, after all, did provide such travel passes to all of the athletes. Why treat the media with disdain?
Another thing the city could have done, had it truly supported this event, would have been to create some public space, free of charge, where participants from the event could meet each night. This little detail is of course legendary in the Olympic Games. The "Olympic Village" is the place where athletes, spectators and others convene to share stories of their day, or of their lives, to trade pins, hats, and t-shirts, or to just commune to enjoy a beverage. some entertainment or just kinship. No such venue was created for Gay Games Chicago despite some obvious choices.
The host Hilton Hotel could have been such a place, but the meeting areas and business expo shut down after the opening weekend. The so-call "host" hotel was busy with several other large, concurrent, expo groups, that it hardly felt like much of a host at all. In fact, one such group, The Sisterhood, were not there for the Games at all. It seems they were all ex-sorority sisters from college and not gay, or lesbian at all, a fact we found out the hard way.
Millennium Park would have made an ideal "Olympic Village", but it was in various uses throughout the week for all kinds of other city events, some Games related, some not. The fact that the rest of the city was not intertwined around the Games, but rather went about its normal busy summer schedule, detracted from any special community feeling. That did not happen in Amsterdam or Sydney, where the Games and its participants were embraced and included in the full celebratory mood of the city.
Halstead Street, Chicago's "gay village" could have the "Olympic Village". Indeed, it is where most participants ended up each evening. But the city, or local business did not see to close any streets and so one was left to stand in long lines to fight your way into crowded bars for any social activity. Not exactly an "Olympic Village", nor much fun either.
Chicago did get some things right. The location, in the U.S. allowed for a good number of athletes, lifting the numbers of competitors filling divisions and bracelets and generally lifting the level of competition. Gay Games records were set, and several swimming performances garnered national record status.
Though it was impossible to see their faces without binoculars, performances by Ari Gold, Kristine W., Sharon McNight and the DC Cowboys, as well as comedian Ant were dazzlying, followed by a brilliant and moving performance by Cyndi Lauper. Accompanied solely by a female violinist dressed as Abe Lincoln, Lauper emerged from the visitor's dugout draped in a rainbow flag and holding a torch like the Statue of Liberty. It was a very special moment and the audience went into a frenzy.
Her mood and demeanor were more even dramatic then the moment that had taken a week in the making. She then methodically delivered a heartfelt and meaningful rendition of "True Colors".
She closed the show with a version of "Shine" from her most recent release and Gay Games Chicago was done.
Closing a street, or dedicating a square, hiring free talent to perform each night and hosting medal ceremonies and parties free to participants and spectators alike might have gone a long way towards that end. But Chicago did not have the budget, or the foresight to make that happen.
From the moment you picked up your accreditation, you could sense something fantastic was to come. Actually it started at the airport where Outgames video messages greeted foreigners awaiting clearance through customs. It continued with banners throughout the city. Storefronts were decorated with Outgame themes; the City Hall even displayed an Outgame topiary logo on its front grassy lawn.
Yes, there were many other events going on in the great city of Montreal, but for those in Quebec for these games, it was as if you were in the center of the UNIVERSE and the entire city was watching, waiting in anticipation for your arrival. It was a welcome that was palpable and electric.
No one event by comparison most clearly spelled the differences between Chicago and Montreal than the Opening Ceremonies. The kickoff was held in Stade Olympic, located in Olympic Park, originally built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. Rather than walk several miles in the heat, this opening was a direct Metro trip with a stream of revelers marching into the arena right from the train. Inside air conditioning and a beautiful array of lights set the stage.
The stage itself may have been the highlight of the show. It looked like a cross between a Rolling Stones concert and a Cirque du Soleil set. Did I mention Cirque du Soleil produced and hosted the show? Their unique blend of comedy and magic were the backdrop from which the Opening Ceremonies emerged. Performances played out on two giant circular screens on either edge of the elaborate stage, and on its oval edges which at various times rotated up to become another video background for the artists. It all worked like, well, a Cirque du Soleil show, with a runway that extended out into the vast sea of athletes that inhabitied the floor of the arena. Do I sound bitter or just enraptured?
MarthaWash opened the talent segment, which came quickly after the parade of athletes and a welcome from Montreal's mayor. She sang several songs including "Sweat" and 'It's Raining Men" which got the crowd in the mood. Deborah Cox followed with "Nobody's Supposed to be Here" and "Absolutel Not". She was in such fine form she ended up scat singing these high energy dance hits. k.d.lang sang 4 songs including "Miss Chatelaine" and "Constant Craving" in confortable men's clothes and bare feet. Despite her slovenly appearance, a look she was obviously going for, her voice was in fine form.
But perhaps the best part of the show was a tandem, bodybuilding duo that performed feats of strength, beauty, and homoerotocism too amazing to describe. Perhaps you've seen them if you've been to a Cirque show. Dressed in nude shorts, with muscles to spare, the two posed, lifted, levitated, strained and spread. It was breathtaking. They were two, then one with the combined strength of ten.
No need for words really, as this show was broadcast on national television by Rado Canada. No doubt it's available and worth getting, as the show was very professionally done. Many people across the entire country of Canada tuned in to watch this grand spectacle and start to the Outgames week. Why couldn't they do this in Chicago?
In addition to all of these festivities Outgames actually hosted a real "Olympic Village", with vendor booths, beer gardens, entertainment and a place where anyone could go and feel a part of the amazing event. Each night the medal winners were honored at Vigor Square, a charming enclave in the heart of downtown nestled amongst old historic churches and glass skyscrapers. What a concept?!!
The venues in Montreal were first class, from the Olympic pool for swimming and diving to the for rowing. But more importantly, at nearly all of the venues was a mini-village with food concessions, tables to sit and relax, as well as video footage of the previous day's highlights updated daily. It really connected everyone to one grand event.
To be sure not everything in Montreal was better than Chicago. The Outsplash show was a total bust, with a sound reverb that made the hosts, as well as the talent, completely inaudible. There was a Cher impersonator from Copenhagen who did a fantastic job actually singing "Trun Back Time" and "Believe", but it was lost on the crowd because of the faulty sound. And with only three swim teams submitting sketches, it was devoid of any real creativity. By comparison, the swim show in Chicago was quite good.
For those who have never been to a Games, the swim teams at the end of the competition gather together to put on an informal variety show, employing many of the talents from the sport itself, including synchronized swimming, diving, as well as the innate talent gays have for satire, dance and costume. The event has become something of a tradition, a must see on the itinerary at every Gay Games now. There are other such shows during this week of sport. The dancers and the figure skaters put on similar exhibitions. In Chicago some of these overlapped, making it impossible for instance to see both the swim show and the skate show. Montreal somehow figured out the schedule so that if you wanted to see all 3, you could. And we did. The Grand Ball, highlighting couples from all over the earth was electrifying.
The heart of the matter goes to what was wrong in Montreal. With fewer athletes than could have been had Chicago not held the Gay Games a week earlier, the level of competition was not as strong as it could be. Divisions had to be combined and even some sports eliminated entirely. An event scheduled to go to 6 PM was often done by 3 PM because of too few teams or competitors.
So while the Gold medal goes to Montreal for a fantastic week that easily rivaled Sydney and Amsterdam. We all are losers if these two events continue on their proposed separate tracks. Outgames 2 is scheduled for 2009 in Copenhagen, with GAY GAMES VIII set for Cologne in 2010.
These two organizations need to combine their talents, put away their differences. Had all the athletes that competed in Chicago been in Montreal it would have truly been an earth-shattering event, something that would have commanded attention from all. Likewise, had the cultural and artistic expertise from Montreal been infused into the Games in Chicago, it would have been something unlike any other gay event ever held in the States. Wouldn't that have been something?
And besides, for a life-changing, never forget, head-spinning, heart-filling, once in a lifetime experience, every four years is just fine, thanks.
Than you CHICAGO. Merci, MONTREAL. Here's hoping the two organiztions, GLISA and FEDERATION of GAY GAMES get their two acts together. What a show that would be!
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