In 1980 almost no one was debating gay marriage. Outside of a few big cities most gays were still closeted. Many viewed gays in stereotypical terms as flamboyant drag queens, promiscuous sex addicts or tough looking “dykes.” The AIDS crisis was just beginning to reach epidemic proportions.
But a few gays in San Francisco had a different vision. Dr. Tom Waddell, a former Army paratrooper, who had finished sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City had a vision to present a more accurate and healthy vision of gay life to the world. His idea was to organize a gay Olympics which would provide a showcase of athletic and artistic performance, foster understanding between the gay and straight worlds, as well as bring thousands of athletes from all over the world together.
Two years later Waddell’s dream became a reality when the Gay Games I began on August 28th, 1982 with opening ceremonies in San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium.
Gene Dermody, a high school science teacher and wrestling coach from New Jersey was there. A fiercely competitive wrestler, Dermody still treasures the memory.
“It is hard after these 20 years, being so jaded, to convey the absolute feeling of liberation and joy I felt that day at Kezar Stadium,” writes Dermody on his personal web site that contains a brief history of the founding of the Gay Games. “I have never experienced that level of exhilaration since.”
Dermody went on to earn a bronze medal at that first Gay Games and has won four other medals, including one gold at subsequent Gay Games. At age 57 he will be wrestling in Gay Games VII to be held in Chicago and surrounding communities, including Oak Park, starting Saturday.
In 1982, Mark Wussler was a 26-year-old physical therapist and swimmer from Tucson when he read about the upcoming Gay Games. He decided he had to go check it out so he registered and went to San Francisco.
Wussler won what he thinks was the first gold medal awarded in the Gay Games; it was the 1,650-yard freestyle. He felt pride in his athletic accomplishment and his sexuality.
“My experience in the Gay Games changed my life,” said Wussler. “Back in those days being Gay and athletic was considered an oxymoron. I left San Francisco with incredible pride and energy. It was the single most thrilling week of my life.”
Wussler has won an incredible 27 medals?#34;12 gold, 11 silver, and four bronze in swimming and water polo. This year he will be in Chicago looking to add to his medal collection.
But the Gay Games is as much about participation as it is about winning. Unlike the Olympics, participants of all abilities are encouraged. Competition is divided by age group and sometimes by ability.
“I had always been an athlete, but have never been to a competition where the people finishing last were getting ovations just like the winners,” said Wussler.
That first Gay Games had approximately 1350 participants from 17 countries. Gay Games VII will have approximately 11,500 participants hailing from 60 countries.
Waddell wanted to call the event he helped create the Gay Olympics but the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic committee sued to prevent the use of the Olympic name despite the fact that other organizations such as the Special Olympics used the Olympic name without objection. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately the Olympic committees prevailed and thus we have the Gay Games instead of the Gay Olympic Games.
The Gay Games have been held every four years since 1982 and have grown from a shoestring budget of $125,000 to a multi-million dollar enterprise.