The two quadrennial international sports competitions taking place in 2014 — the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the Gay Games in Cleveland — couldn’t be setting more dissimilar tones.
Though it hasn’t been without its own controversies, next August, organizers of the Cleveland Gay Games are prepared to welcome the LGBT athletes that Russia vows to muzzle.
Rob Smitherman, sports and operations director for Cleveland’s Gay Games 9, said that, even as much of the western world begins to embrace LGBT rights, the continued need for the Gay Games couldn’t be more obvious since Russia and the IOC have begun warning athletes not to attempt to test the nation’s new anti-gay “propaganda” law.
“People need a place to come to feel that they are safe and to express themselves fully,” Smitherman said. “To be who they are, not feel like they have to hide in any way. And it’s still important.”
He said athletes from around the world still contact him saying they can’t compete and be open anywhere besides the Gay Games.
“Even in the United States and Europe, we still need this. For the kids in small towns and states like Alabama.”
Atlanta-based 10-year hockey veteran Chuck Hagel — who will be attending for the first time as an official and a participant with his group Gay Hockey International — said the games are much different than other traditional, non-sporting events because they are inclusive of people of all ages, ability levels, and even include a focus on non-competing attendees.
“This particular event is incredible because it brings together athletes of all different playing levels, different types of sport,” Hagel told the Blade, adding that the games are perfect for those who may have felt less included or sidelined in other championship events. “Promoting athleticism and camaraderie at all different age groups.”
Smitherman touts the walkability of all of the venues from the official 30 host hotels in Cleveland and Akron offering registrants special rates through the Games’ site. Early bird registration ends Sept. 1, but Team D.C. announced in its Facebook group a special discount through Sept. 15 for Team D.C. members.
Team DC President Les Johnson — who attended the 2010 games in Cologne, Germany with more than 100 other Team D.C. participants as a bowler — said that for most athletes at the Gay Games, competing is about “personal best.”
“It’s something that ordinary people don’t experience,” Johnson said of experiencing the festive and affirming spirit of the Gay Games. “Getting that medal really means a lot because you’re competing against all of your peers”
“Cleveland is going to be totally different because we can drive to Cleveland,” Johnson said, contrasting it with Cologne. Johnson said Team DC could bring more than 500 athletes.
Ten percent of the 11,000 expected attendees have already registered. Most competitive events are free for spectators, making this an ideal getaway for LGBT sports fans — assuming there are hotel rooms left.
“People need to get a move on and get registered,” said Smitherman, who has attended and played basketball in four Gay Games.
Smitherman said participants should be excited about the non-sporting events too, with opening ceremonies at the home of the Cavaliers basketball team, Quicken Loans Arena, and closing ceremonies taking place at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — all within walking distance of the hotels.
Pink Flamingo is an event that many who attend Gay Games look forward to, where aquatics teams compete for prizes performing synchronized swimming routines in outrageous costumes.
“It’s kind of a highlight of the games every time,” said Smitherman.
Besides official Gay Games events, Johnson said the games always feature a multitude of unofficial parties every night around town, and Smitherman said that his group is working with local theaters and galleries to offer even more cultural opportunities. Additionally, the Gay Games is partnering with the International Gay Rodeo Association to bring an event to Akron as part of the festivities.
Smitherman said the Gay Games 9 organizers are eager to move on after a previous group, the Synergy Foundation, had its license revoked by the Federation of Gay Games, which the Washington Blade reported on extensively.
“Our organization is a gay organization that has a really diverse board. We have straight people on our board,” Smitherman tells the Blade, saying while their involvement with the Gay Games ended abruptly, had it not been for Synergy Foundation, Cleveland would not have won its bid for the games against other the larger cities competing, including Washington, D.C. and Boston. “We’re way past the drama of ‘who should host the games.’”
Johnson said Russian athletes also plan on taking part in the Gay Games.
“I’m not for boycotting personally, but it does seem some kind of action needs to take place,” Johnson said regarding the legal quagmire faced by athletes, coaches, personnel, trainers and fans heading to Sochi, where any demonstration of support for LGBT people could be penalized.