Re-imagining (the) Olympics
Re-Imagining (the) Olympics
Oxford – 2 Sept 2014
How the Gay Games re-imagine the Olympic Games
The Gay Games were born in relation to, and in opposition to, the Olympics. The Federation of Gay Games has maintained an attitude of emulation, opposition, and indifference to the Olympic Movement. Currently the intent of the FGG is to provide constructive engagement to encourage the International Olympic Committee to take on the issue of human rights in the Olympic Movement, and in particular, homophobia in sport. A focus for the FGG’s engagement is the host selection process, for which the FGG submitted a contribution focused on human rights as part of the IOC Agenda 2020 process.
The Gay Games were founded by an Olympian as an alternative to the Olympics that consciously emulated the structure of the Olympics while promoting a different mission for the Games: the Gay Games were to be games for all, where participation was more important than performance.
Our participation in the workshop is aimed at reviewing how the Gay Games have developed with the Olympics as a model and anti-model, and at how the Federation of Gay Games hopes to engage with the Olympic Movement to promote the values at the core of the Olympic Charter, with a focus on submissions from the FGG and other organizations to the Agenda 2020 process.
We will be represented by Leviathen Hendricks, a member of the organizing committee of Pride House London 2012 and the FGG External Affairs committee.
Just a few weeks ago Gay Games 9 took place in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. During the Games, a rather alarmed email went out to board members: in a particular sport, the national anthem of each gold medal winner was being played at the medal ceremony. A few board members replied that in DanceSport this has long been the custom. This surprised some board members unfamiliar with this practice, clearly adopted in imitation of international championships of mainstream sport, and in particular, the Olympics.
But how much did it make sense at the Gay Games, where athletes register (and pay) individually, where national sports organizations have nothing to do with choosing or supporting a national team, and where participation is valued above performance?
Similarly, what to make of the retention (and even the expansion) of Olympic symbolism at the Gay Games? We have often seen the arrival of a torch and the lighting of a cauldron at opening ceremony of the Gay Games. This is quite odd in fact: where does the torch come from? Not Olympia, not even our own Olympia, a.k.a. San Francisco. The flame that is lit in the opening ceremony stadium or arena is extinguished after everyone leaves the venue: unlike the Olympic flame, it does not burn for the duration of the Games.
In Cleveland we had an even more incongruous appearance of a torch at closing ceremonies: a torch with a rainbow handle arrived from nowhere, was carried to the stage, and was promptly extinguished to symbolize the end of the Games.
At the Gay Games, we suffer from Olympic envy. Why should an event whose spirit is so radically different from the modern Olympics continue to ape symbolism and structures that we have in fact already replaced? An example of an original tradition at the Gay Games: At the Gay Games, we have no torch relay.
Instead we have the International Rainbow Memorial Run, a series of runs in each of the past host cities of the Gay Games, with local runners carrying a rainbow flag. The series culminates with a run in the host city of the current games on the morning of opening ceremony.
The Rainbow Run is the heir to Brent Nicholson Earle’s America’s Run to End AIDS, and is associated with our tradition of AIDS quilts, which has expanded to honor everyone in our Gay Games family lost to AIDS, breast cancer, or any other cause. Opening ceremony is marked by the arrival of this flag in the venue.
During the ceremony a second flag, that of the Gay Games, is presented by the Federation of Gay Games to the host committee, a presentation that takes place in reverse at closing ceremony when the flag is presented to the next host, as described earlier. The flag raising marks the start of the Games, so what’s with the torch? In thirty years we have developed a rich body of symbols and traditions. So why do we feel the need to continue to copy the Olympics? Perhaps it lies in our own history, and in the capture of sport by the IOC, a situation which means that to change sport, we need to engage with the Olympic movement..
Gay (Olympic) Games
The Gay Games were founded in 1982 as the Gay Olympic Games by Olympic decathlete Dr Tom Waddell, who had competed on the US team at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Already in Mexico he confronted the Olympics’ failure to take on human rights, via his support for the symbolic action of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
He founded the Gay Games as the “Gay Olympic Games”, only to see the United States Olympic Committee sue him and the host committee under the provisions of the Amateur Athletics Act, which gave the USOC exclusive rights to the word “Olympic” in the United States. As a result, at the last minute the host committee was obliged to rename the event the “Gay Games”. They had to remove the word “Olympic” by hand from all documents, programs, signage, tickets, posters, etc., making the Gay Olympic Games the Gay “bleep” Games, in honor of which, the first newsletter of the future FGG was called “The Bleep”. The USOC continued to pursue Waddell until just weeks before his death in 1987, when it finally abandoned its claim for legal fees and removed the lien on Waddell’s house so that his widow and child would not be on the street.
Beyond the name, the Olympic model was clear. There would be opening and closing ceremonies. Athletes would win gold, silver and bronze medals. Whenever possible, sports events would take place in sanctioned venues under international or national rules and regulations for each sport.
But in some ways the model was followed the better to show differences between the inclusive Gay Games and the exclusive and exclusionary Olympics.
Sport for all
The Olympics are for an elite: 10,000 athletes selected by their national teams, subject to qualifying standards. The Gay Games are for all: no qualifying standards or events, no designation by a third-party organization, they’re open to all adults, with no upper age limit. As an example, we saw in Cleveland a track record set in the 100m by a 99-year-old great-great-grandmother.
While both events award medals for first, second, and third place, at the Gay Games everyone also is awarded a participation medal. Just showing up, often in the face of prejudice and discrimination, is worthy of recognition. While everyone can’t be a winner, no one should be a loser.
Whatever Pierre de Coubertin’s intentions, nation-states have taken over the structure of the Olympic movement. One wing of the IOC is made up of the various national Olympic committees. Athletes are selected by their national teams, the parade of athletes is a parade of nations behind the country’s flag (unless the country’s Olympic committee is suspended by the IOC, in which case they enter behind the Olympic flag), media keep tabs of national medal counts, which can determine how investment in sport is made.
At the Gay Games, athletes compete as individuals, and register and pay their own way. The parade of athletes is organized by country for the sake of convenience, with the fundamental unit of recognition being “city teams”: people who regularly play sport together. A project managed by a former FGG sports officer to break down medals by country was hotly debated as being contrary to the spirit of the Gay Games. The project was completed and made available to city teams to support their dialog with national mainstream sport organizations, but it was decided that no publication or promotion of the spreadsheet would be made.
Are the Olympics the only Games in town?
The International Olympic Committee has proclaimed itself the master of world sport, at least of amateur sport. No treaty has given them this power. The IOC is not a United Nations agency.
Despite this, because they have staked a claim as the owner of the preeminent international multisport event, the IOC has co-opted the national sports committees of most countries as well as most of the world’s international amateur sports federations,which in turn govern countless national federations.
The IOC has built a financial and institutional empire on a bluff, with great success. They have expanded their own portfolio of events, with new multisport tournaments such as the European Olympic Games, whose first edition takes place next year in Baku, Azerbaijan, or the Youth Olympic Games, the second edition of which just concluded in Nanjing.
The IOC has gained credibility via partnerships, willing or unwilling, with other international institutions. I think in particular of WADA, created under pressure from national governments to force the IOC to take doping seriously, and which remains governed jointly by the IOC and national governments, and which gathers its authority under a UNESCO convention. I think too of the United Nations, which the IOC has mobilized to offer international credibility for the Olympics as more than just a sporting event. The UN declares an Olympic Truce at each edition of the Games, and the UN flag now flies over Olympic venues.
Even sports that are not Olympic sports are under the sway of the IOC via SportAccord, which despite having broader membership than the IOC, does not contest Olympic primacy.
World Games, Islamic Women’s Games, etc. are held under Olympic patronage. SportAccord has launched its own thematic games such as the World Combat Games, taking care not to step on the toes of the IOC.
Despite this, there are any number of sporting events and organizations that totally ignore the IOC. Motor racing, the NFL, or professional cricket for example, have nothing to do with the Olympic movement. Many professional sport organizations have only limited relations with the IOC, often through their connections with national amateur sports federations.
But for the Gay Games, a multisport event that was born in emulation of and in contrast to the Olympics, the situation is more complex. We can fall under the sway of the Olympic model and try to be part of the Olympic system, or we can turn our back on it. Or we can try to find a third way: critical engagement, emulation with adaptation.
After a very contentious start, relations between the FGG and the USOC have improved greatly. For Gay Games IV in New York in 1994, the USOC supported the host committee’s efforts to obtain “Designated Event Status” for the Gay Games. This would allow visa waivers for foreign participants, and in particular free them from the ban on entry for HIV-positive participants. This work was repeated for Gay Games VI held in Chicago in 2006. It was unnecessary for the most recent games in Cleveland, thanks to the Obama administration’s removal of restrictions on entrance to HIV-positive people in 2010.
More recently, the USOC’s new diversity director has been invited to take part in the Nike LGBT Sports Summit (annual event in Portland, Oregon every June) and is an observer on the LGBT Sports Coalition (several North American sports organisations; FGG only international member). Nike’s ‘Be True’ sportswear collection raises funds for the LGBT Sports Coalition; around $500,000 this year. The FGG has been invited to the USOC Diversity and Inclusion Summits.
With regard to the International Olympic Committee, for many years we had no success in engaging with it. We would receive courtesy responses to our letters, but no more. In particular, we had no reaction to our Principle 5 Campaign, aiming to integrate sexual orientation in the Olympic Charter’s protections, which we launched at Gay Games VIII in Cologne in 2010. (After a revision of the Olympic Charter, non-discrimination is now found in Principle 6.)
The situation changed with increased visibility for the issue of homophobia at the Olympics and the creation of Pride Houses, and with the arrival of a new IOC president, Thomas Bach.
Pride Houses and Sochi
LGBT sport became more visible at the Olympics with the creation of a Pride House at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler. A Pride House is an independent venue that welcomes LGBT sports fans and friends to enjoy the event, to learn more about LGBT sport and related issues, and to promote equality in sport. A Pride House was created in Warsaw for the 2012 UEFA Championship. More important, LOCOG, the host committee for the 2012 Summer Olympics, was keen to see a Pride House in London.
The Mayor of London favored a commercial event organizer who came up with an ambitious plan for an LGBT music-type festival. SLIDE PHLondon Alas, for want of funding, in February 2012 he gave up, leaving it up to the FGG and UK sports groups, with funding from the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation and GLISA International, to put together a last-minute plan for a community-based Pride House. Coordinated by Pride Sports UK in Manchester, Pride House London was hosted at the Cruising Association House at Limehouse Basin on the Thames. At times when that venue was not available, events took place outside, including a bowling night, a fun run, and a football tournament that I had the pleasure of organizing. Only very limited corporate sponsorship was available. The CEO of LOCOG sent a letter of support, but the IOC did not react at all.
During the London Olympics, the FGG organized a meeting aimed at creating a group of past and planned Pride Houses, with the goal of sharing knowledge. This effort, known as Pride House International, remained low-key until the situation in Sochi became clearer.
The choice of Russia was already contested on the grounds of the country’s human rights abuses. With the spread of homophobic legislation from cities to regions and regions to the federal level, the scandal of this choice was clear for LGBT and other human rights groups.
Nikolai Alekseev, an erratic LGBT advocate in Russia, used his organisation to apply for an authorisation to create a Pride House in Sochi during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. He did this without consulting any previous Pride House partners or the Russian LGBT Sports Federation. His aim was likely not to organize a Pride House, but to use the refusal to generate attention for the situation in Russia.
SLIDE PHI NOC The FGG led the mobilisation of Pride House International for Sochi, which was largely focused on the IOC. We asked the IOC to offer its protection for a Pride House at the Olympic Village, which it refused. We asked National Olympic Committees to host a roving Pride House, a series of events at various venues in Sochi. Most ignored or denied our requests. The Netherlands said that their national house would be focused on the wonders of Dutch culture, which apparently no longer include tolerance and LGBT liberation. The German Olympic Committee did agree for a private meeting during the Olympics with European activists, including the coordinator of Pride House International.
SLIDE SSHHI We launched the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative to ensure visibility for the cause of sport for all in Sochi. Due in part to rivalries within the LGBT and ally community, this campaign was not a huge success in Sochi, but did offer supporters from around the world a way to show solidarity.
With regard to the IOC, we took advantage of the campaign for the presidency of the committee to ask candidates to take a position on the inclusion of human rights in the criteria for choosing Olympic hosts. SLIDE UN We asked Ban Ki Moon, the secretary general of the UN, to use the Olympic Truce as an opportunity to call for equal rights for all, and requested that he refuse to fly the UN flag in Sochi, neither of which he did (although he did use his speech at the opening of the IOC session in Sochi to condemn homophobia in sport, recalling that the theme of the UN Human Rights Day in December 2013 was the fight against homophobia in sport.
SLIDE REMOTE PH Pride House International was more successful in promoting Remote Pride Houses. Some 80 events were held in 40 cities to show support for Russian LGBTs and the fight against homophobia in sport.
SLIDE ROG The FGG also contributed to the support of the Open Games, the first international multisport LGBT tournament organized in Russia. This event was held in Moscow in the period between the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and was a great success despite the efforts of the Russian authorities to prevent it from taking place. These efforts included pressure on venues to cancel at the last minute, bomb threats, and even the use of smoke bombs to force the evacuation of venues. One of the aims of the Open Games was to shame the IOC by illustrating the reality of the practice of sport in the host country of the 2014 Winter Olympics. We must admit that while the Open Games were a success, the IOC took no notice of them.
SLIDE PARIS MEETING The issues raised by Russian homophobia did lead to the historic first meeting in November 2013 between the IOC on one hand, represented by newly elected president Thomas Bach, his chief of staff and his director of communications, and by representatives of the FGG, the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, and the Russian LGBT Network. We urged the IOC to make clear to athletes that they could speak out about equality in sport. The IOC responded that they would be issuing instructions. Alas, these instructions to National Olympic Committees were formulated in threatening terms, aimed at “protecting” athletes from politics. Only later, during the Olympics, and after receiving multiple insults from Russian authorities, would the IOC come out clearly in favor of freedom of speech for athletes.
SLIDE SPORT.HIV The continuing dialog promised by the IOC last November has not taken place as of today. For example, the FGG requested guidance from the IOC on the best way of engaging it in sport.hiv, our portal for information about sport and HIV/AIDS.We have yet to hear from our contacts.
Before closing with our Agenda 2020 submission, I wanted to speak to the concept of legacy. The Olympics and other mega-events have a history of huge price tags, cost overruns, and the failure to deliver a legacy other than white elephant venues and public debt. The Gay Games are a testimony to a sporting event that can mobilize as many athletes as the Olympics, with almost zero investment in new and often useless infrastructure. When investments are made, they clearly have a long-term benefit for the population. In Cologne, the 2010 Games were the opportunity to correct a construction defect in the city’s only Olympic pool, making it suitable to host sanctioned 50-meter meets. In Paris, the public changing rooms in the Bois de Vincennes sports fields will be renovated, for the good of all.
SLIDE AGENDA As I promised, I will conclude with our submission for the IOC’s Agenda 2020 process.
The FGG made the following recommendations:
|Suggestion 1||That an evaluation of the status of human rights, and in particular the existence of official and unofficial discrimination in a potential host country, should be part of the Olympic bidding process.|
|Suggestion 2||That the existence in a potential host country of legal discrimination on the basis of the criteria set out in the Olympic Charter disqualify potential host countries.|
|Suggestion 3||That the IOC include in its contractual documents with hosts appropriate mechanisms to enforce human rights commitments. The IOC must be at least as committed to respecting the human rights as it is to protecting intellectual property and marketing rights during the Olympic Games.|
|Suggestion 4||That the IOC incorporate the reforms proposed by the Atlanta Plus Committee with regard to gender equality in the Olympics, in particular measures to ensure gender parity within Olympic disciplines, events, and national delegations.|
|Suggestion 5||Fundamental reform of gender identity policy, with an end to the current testosterone-based criteria for participation in women’s sport.|
|Suggestion 6||The IOC should establish targets with mechanisms for enforcement to ensure greater presence of women in sports bodies, in NOCs, IFs, and organizing committees.|
|Suggestion 7||The IOC should serve as a rampart against discriminatory laws and practices in NOCs and IFs, in particular with regard to religious interference in the practice of sport by women, to laws discriminating against women and athletes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and to political interference in the practice of sport by all.|
|Suggestion 8||The IOC can demonstrate its commitment to sport for all by including language referring to sexual orientation and gender identity in the Olympic Charter, in line the Federation of Gay Games’ Principle 5 Campaign launched in 2010, accompanied by actions designed to show the world that this commitment goes beyond a change in language, and represents a real commitment to ensuring that sport for all is a reality around the world.|
Although Agenda 2020 is not intended to deal with issues of human rights, the FGG has not been alone in presenting submissions on this theme. Human Rights Watch filed a submission focused entirely on these issues. The Norwegian Olympic Committee’s submission included a section on human rights, as did the joint submission of four former bidding countries: Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, which treated human rights in the context of sustainability.
With regard to our own submission, we have received no acknowledgment from the IOC. We have no reason to believe that our suggestions will be considered. Perhaps those coming from these various European Olympic Committees will receive more attention. SLIDE BAKU But these of course are the same committees that have chosen Baku as host of the first European Olympic Games. Azerbaijan is not the worst country for human rights and for LGBT rights in particular. But it is hardly a paragon, and is emblematic of a model of mega-events in which only rich dictatorships can successfully become hosts.
Slate.com/Gay activists failed in Sochi
Outsports/Not asking for special treatment in Sochi
Slate.com/Olympic symbolism out of gas
Slate.com/Stop talking about hospitality in Sochi
PHI/Call for IOC to host Pride House
PHI/Launch of SSHHI
Olympic bidding/Agenda 2020
PHI/Call for IOC to respect Olympic Charter
FGG/Per 2020 bidding evaluation report, trees are more important than people
FGG submission for Agenda 2020
Austria/Germany/Sweden/Switzerland Olympic Committees submission for Agenda 2020
Human Rights Watch submission for Agenda 2020
Norwegian Olympic Committee submission for Agenda 2020