With only two years of preparation, a rival games to contend with, weather ranging from humid blasts to rainy downpours, and even ( earlier in July ) an alleged terrorist plot to bomb the Sears Tower, the seventh Gay Games may stand as a successful turning point for the LGBT sports movement.
After eight days of competition and cultural events in Chicago and nearby suburbs, the seventh Games' closing ceremonies, held July 22, a sunny Saturday afternoon, at Wrigley Field, took off with a rousing a cappella/punk version of the U.S. national anthem performed by perennial favorite band BETTY.
While athletes watched the program, which was thankfully shorter than the sprawling opening ceremonies, they showed off their medals, as cheerleaders and country-western dancers entertained the crowd. Wrapped in a rainbow flag Statue of Liberty costume, Cyndi Lauper headlined the ceremonies, singing two hit songs.
In athletic competition, a few swimming records were set, and personal bests abounded. Audience attendance was sparse at some events, and the high humidity made some indoor venues stuffy. Half a dozen competitors and one cheerleader were treated for heat exhaustion. But overall, the tone and atmosphere remained upbeat.
'It's pretty exciting,' said Wayne Woodward of Sydney, Australia, who competed in softball and track events when his city hosted the last Gay Games in 2002. Woodward, who competed in track sprints in Chicago, said he was thrilled to be participating in these Games. 'There's maybe 150 of us ( Sydney athletes ) here this time; not as many as last time, surely.'
Chicago Games, Inc., the organization created to host the seventh Games, may have reversed the trend of bankrupt Games events while competing for sponsors and participants with the rival Outgames, which opened July 29 in Montreal.
The Games' impact on Chicago was sizable. The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau estimated that the Games contributed $33.4 million to the local economy, based on the lodging, meals, and transportation costs of the 11,500 registered athletes. Although exact figures have not yet been released, GGVII co-vice chairman Kevin Boyer said he anticipated this being the first profitable Games in years.
But how expenses were reined in left some athletes high and dry—or sopping wet, depending on the day. Pouring rain delayed or cancelled one day's competition in several outdoor sports. E-mail and mobile phone updates kept athletes informed of scheduling changes, but some mix-ups over event cancellations—like track and race-walking at suburban Hansen Stadium—left runners confused. One event, hammer throw, was never rescheduled.
Despite the mishaps, a few hundred medals in track alone were handed out, including a gold medal in the 5-kilometer race for 27-year-old Hlengiwe Buthelezi of Johannesburg, South Africa. A photojournalist and accomplished runner, Buthelezi also competed in Sydney's Gay Games VI in 2002, but said she may give up running soon.
'I haven't got much left,' she said. 'When you're 30, you cannot do track [ competitively ] . The older you grow, the less speed you pick up. I'm not getting any faster. I might be doing it for training.'
To help her team, Buthelezi also ran some sprint and relay events, which gained her six gold medals, and was satisfied with her success. 'The 5K wasn't my best time, but that's OK,' she said. 'The thing is, I didn't have any push, no one to chase me.'
While a reported 70 percent of GGVII athletes were American, Buthelezi was one of more than a hundred scholarship recipients who had their visa applications completed with the help of Gay Games VII officials and Gay Games ambassador Leigh-Ann Naidoo, a South African lesbian volleyball player who also attended the Games.
One of the hottest tickets at the Games was the festive Pink Flamingo show, a pop-culture-themed water ballet and drag competition between swim teams. Started 20 years ago at a gay swim meet, the show this year included parodies of the musical Chicago and the film Brokeback Mountain, including swimmers portraying pink sheep.
Other popular nonsports events included band and choral concerts in Millennium Park, where a few brief confrontations occurred with a motley crew of religious protestors. Some athletes jokingly posed in front of signs reading 'Homosexuality Is a Sin.' One guest pianist onstage even performed a solo version of 'Jesus Loves Me' to counter the protestors.
After the closing ceremonies, Chicago's Boystown district was crowded with celebratory participants, some showing off their medals, some just competitively flirting. For Sasha Hullein of Cologne, Germany ( which will host the next Games in 2010 ) , Chicago was his fourth Gay Games, but he switched from soccer to figure skating.
'I did 25 years boxing, soccer and judo,' he said. 'I was fed up with my straight image. But I tell you, there is nothing more difficult to train in than figure skating.' Hullein said more than 20 figure skaters from Cologne competed in Chicago.
Hullein said he's enthused to have his hometown hosting the next Games, and had nothing but good things to say about Chicago. 'There are so many nice things to see here,' he said. 'Of course, we were here when we won the bid, so we love Chicago. I'm making a sort of movie in my brain to remember it all. We want to bring the spirit back to Cologne. We expect it to be very special. The Cologne people are very familiar with gay people. Everyone will come together 100 percent.'
FGG co-president Roberto Mantaci competed in running events and the ceremonial handing-over of the flag at closing ceremonies. Happy with the turnout in Chicago, he said, 'The warm feelings we all had at Chicago will inspire us over the next four years in our training for Gay Games VIII in Cologne.'