One could feel the tension in the air. After a five round shoot out at Oak Park and River Forest High School’s South Field, the Gay Games’ soccer match between Boston and West Hollywood was still deadlocked. OPRF Assistant Superintendent for Operations Jack Lanenga anxiously eyed his watch. He had promised local residents that the stadium’s lights would be off by 10 p.m. and had no intention of breaking his word. As the clock struck 10 one of Boston’s players nailed a stunning goal. Just as the ball hit the back of the net, ensuring a Boston victory, the field went pitch black. The crowd roared.

“It was a perfect evening,” said Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) Co-Chair Brad Bartels. After the match was over, athletes flooded downtown Oak Park. At Papaspiros on Lake Street, a mariachi band serenaded participants, who were so overcome by emotion that they danced and sang on the restaurant’s chairs.

In that celebratory manner Oak Park’s role as a host of the International Gay Games came to a close. However, for those who participated, contributed or otherwise benefited from its success, the event will not soon be forgotten.

Perhaps the most apparent beneficiaries of the event were those who chose to participate as athletes. Jeff Webber, who has taught third grade at Longfellow Elementary School for the past 14 years, earned a bronze metal in level C of the singles badminton tournament. Webber, a softball player, only took up badminton seriously during the past year.

“I expected to just go out and have some fun,” he said of the games. “I had no expectations of getting a medal, but low and behold … I was definitely surprised.”

Webber said he was honored by the fact that other teachers and friends from the area came out to support him. “Having a number of people in the stands was quite an experience,” he said. “It gave me the confidence to move to higher ground.” He said after his experience in the Chicago Gay Games that he has every intention of going to the 2010 Games in Cologne, Germany.

Business boost

Oak Park’s businesses received the most tangible benefits from the games. “From the conversations I’ve had with businesses, especially in areas near the events, there seemed to be a consensus that the games were absolutely helpful,” said Oak Park Business Services Manager Loretta Daley.

Some businesses reported more significant increases than others, however. Karen Morava, the owner of Harrison Street’s Careful Peach Boutique, was not only a sponsor of the event but also volunteered at the Hilton Hotel in the Loop, welcoming participants and “getting the word out” about Oak Park. However, “actual business impact for my boutique was minimal,” Morava said, “but I’m hoping for a long-term residual effect.”

Other businesses, specifically restaurants, reported record earnings. “We were open for lunch all week,” said Ryan Stratton, the general manager of Lake Street’s Fuego Loco, which usually only serves lunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday. “It turned out to be our best week ever.”

“Events like this are great,” said Gary Nebiolo, manager of Winberie’s, Oak Park Avenue at Lake Street. “I overheard a guest the other day, a competitor from Berwyn,” he recalled. “I heard him say, ‘I’ve never been to Oak Park before.’ He’d never been across that great wall of Roosevelt Road.” Nebiolo, who said his philosophy of business is to focus on long-term profits, sees newcomers like the man from Berwyn as future regular customers.

Daley noted that increased business was even more appreciated because the extreme weather conditions of the past week drove local customers indoors. The weather was not just a problem for businesses. It presented a major logistical challenge for the event organizers as well. Lanenga and his team at the high school were hard pressed to provide for the athletes’ needs. “It was hotter than blue blazes,” he said. “We had our ice machine running, and we just gave out water so that we wouldn’t have anyone passing out.”

“The amount of water and Gatorade that was consumed was amazing,” Bartels agreed. “I was talking to the team from Ireland. They kept saying that it doesn’t get this hot there.”

Lanenga recalled the highlight of those trying hours. He contacted a deputy chief of Oak Park’s Fire Department, and described how the athletes were struggling with the heat. They needed to conduct a drill with one of the department’s fire engines, and sent a truck over to the soccer fields. “On the spot,” Lanenga said, “they just hook up the water cannon and bathed the field [and athletes] in water. It was just a very humane thing to do,” he said, “and man was it a welcome relief.”

Weathering the extremes

Foreign athletes, experiencing the extremes of Chicago’s summer weather for the first time, were equally shocked by the severity of the thunderstorms on Thursday. “The tornado siren sounded,” Bartels said, “and they all wanted to look out the windows because they’d never seen a storm like that before.”

The thunderstorms, which lasted until around 1 p.m. on Thursday, forced the games organizers to reschedule matches for later in the day. Oak Park Village President David Pope polled the village board for approval to keep the high school’s stadium lights on until 10 p.m. in order to ensure that all the Gay Games’ soccer matches could be completed. Fliers were distributed to residents to inform them of the decision.

Oak Park’s village board played a significant role in bringing the events to the suburb. Trustee Ray Johnson was the most visible board representative at the games, coordinating volunteers for the soccer competitions. Johnson saw the potential for Oak Park to participate in the games the moment he heard that the organizers were considering Chicago as a host city. He talked to the Oak Park Host Committee and Oak Park Visitors Bureau Executive Director Rich Carollo about securing funding and sponsorship from local businesses for the event.

“He really took the ball and ran with it,” Johnson said of Carollo. “It truly was a collaborative effort,” he said, “a partnership all-round between volunteers and staff, from health to public works to streets, sanitation and public safety.”

“Whenever you do an event like this, there are always challenging moments,” Carollo said. He noted it took a concerted effort to find venues willing to host the event and businesses willing to sponsor it. He praised the police, park district, high school, and community at large for supporting those efforts. “I can bring something into town,” he said, “but they facilitate it.”

Praise for Oak Park

Participants and organizers, from local volunteers to the upper echelons of the Gay Games’ leadership, were quick to praise Oak Park for its role in hosting the games. “Oak Park’s teamwork helping to put together the games was among my best memories [of the games],” said Gay Games VII Board Co-Chair Tracy Baim. “It showed what teamwork is about. Everybody in Oak Park really pulled together to make sure the experience for the athletes was complete.” Baim was present during the soccer matches in the village, ensuring that everything ran smoothly. “In my own opinion,” she stated, “Oak Park was definitely the best-run village.”

One of the prime recipients of participants’ and organizers’ praise was the Oak Park Police Department. “First and foremost our role was to provide security,” said Deputy Chief Robert Scianna, “but more important was the unofficial role of acting as ambassadors to the Gay Games and doing everything we could to ensure that everything went off smoothly.” Scianna himself helped ferry a group of athletes from the high school to Barrie Park minutes before their game was to be played.

Carollo said his one regret was that “Oak Park didn’t get the media attention it deserved.” Instead, the cameras were focused on more conservative regions of the Chicago metropolitan area that drew small groups of protesters. “We were punished for being welcoming,” he argued. “Everyone’s attention was focused on [conservative] Crystal Lake, and no attention was paid to Oak Park, the community that really threw its support behind the games.”

Although Oak Park’s Gay Games’ organizers were drained by the week’s events, and many seemed happy to pass the torch on to the Germans, all voiced their sadness to see the games go.

“To be honest it’s a let down,” Johnson said. “On Sunday I drove down Lake Street, and I missed seeing all the soccer players streaming down the street. But you still have those great memories of all the experiences.”

Bartels articulated the opinion of many organizers and Oak Park residents. “I look forward to another event,” he said, “whether it’s gay or not, where we can come together as a village and really do something extraordinary again.”

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