Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
Over 8,000 participants traveled from all over the world to Cleveland, Ohio last week to participate in the Gay Games, held Aug. 9 – 16. Presented by the Cleveland Foundation, it was the 10th such gathering of LGBT athletes since the event was first conceived in 1980 and established in 1982.
Dozens of athletes traveled from San Diego to the games this year playing in multiple events. A group from the San Diego Tennis Federation, many still fresh off of wins at their annual Open Tennis Tournament in June, fared extremely well.
Held every four years like the traditional Olympic Games it is fashioned after, the first two Gay Games were held in San Francisco. Since then, cities across the world have stepped up to host the games, including Vancouver, New York City, Amsterdam, Sydney, Chicago, and Cologne, Germany.
The all-volunteer Federation of Gay Games was established as the umbrella organization that manages the collaboration of the games worldwide. Its founding principles are Participation, Inclusion, and Personal Best, and the games are now open to anyone, not just the LGBT community.
With 35 different sports and culture events happening over the seven days, those 8,000 participants closely rival the Summer Olympics, which generally sees between 10,000 and 11,000 participants. With sport competitions as diverse as martial arts, billiards, water polo, dancesport, ice hockey, and darts, the games are also filled with traditional sports such as softball, soccer, swimming, tennis, rodeo, track and field, bowling, and rowing, with choral and band performances making up the cultural competitions.
According to the Cleveland Foundation’s website, the Gay Games have “built an international legacy of changing cultural, social and political attitudes towards LGBT people across the globe, while at the same time empowering tens of thousands with the transforming benefits of sports competition.”
Aside from staging the multitude of sporting events at various venues, the cities of Cleveland and Akron were also alive with a host of other extra-curricular activities, including meet-ups, happy hours, film screenings, local tours, as well as celebrity comedy and musical performances. Boy George, the Indigo Girls, the Pointer Sisters, Hal Sparks, DJ Tony Moran and Karen Williams were just some of the entertainment provided over the seven days.
San Diego had an impressive showing at this year’s games, and members of the San Diego Tennis Federation (SDTF) led the charge with seven of their nine participants winning a total of 11 medals in the six day tennis competition.
Andrew Hoffman and Allen Sanchez were Gold medalists in Men’s C Doubles; Jim Wilson took Gold in the Men’s Over 40 C Doubles; Vince Travaglione took Silver in the Men’s A Singles and Mixed A Doubles; Andrew Hoffman and Jill Waters were Silver Medalists in Mixed C Doubles; Todd Linke won Silver in Men’s Over 40 C Singles; Brian Woolford was a Silver Medalist in Mixed Over 40 B Doubles; and Allen Sanchez was a Bronze Medalist in Men’s C Singles.
Waters, who also participated in several track-and-field meets, won a Gold medal in the Shot Put competition.
Cleveland, as a Midwestern town, would not traditionally be expected to embrace 8,000 members of the LGBT community descending upon their neighborhoods and retail centers, but what members of the SDTF actually found there was heartwarming.
“The whole town was so incredibly welcoming, it was phenomenal,” Waters said, who was participating in her fourth Gay Games. “For example I bought a new computer while I was there and the salesman asked why I was in town and I said I was there for the Gay Games. He said ‘are you kidding me? You’re one of the people that’s here for the Gay Games?’ And they had this huge celebration in the store, ‘We have a Gay Games athlete here.’ The whole town was like that.”
Waters, who competed in the San Francisco games in 1986, said the perpetually gay city’s support of those games absolutely paled in comparison.
“Being gay was still sort of a clandescent thing,” she said. “So the  Gay Games were just happening at the sports venues but the town didn’t acknowledge it at all. But Cleveland, the whole town — the economy, the newspapers, everywhere you turned. Every day the front page of the newspaper featured somebody, or some event or something.”
Participants said they also heard stories of athletes getting on city buses with their medals on and having the entire bus stand up and cheer for them.
Todd Linke, former SDTF membership chair and secretary, grew up in the region and graduated from Kent State and the University of Akron.
“The cities of Cleveland and Akron, and the many Gay Games volunteers were friendly and welcoming,” Linke said. “The civic leaders were clearly ready to show the country and world that Northeast Ohio is a welcoming and affirming part of the country. They put on a high energy and very entertaining opening ceremony, hosted a festival village, and numerous entertainment venues every night of the Games.
“Cleveland made everyone feel welcome by lighting Terminal Tower in rainbow lighting, and business owners welcomed us by hanging rainbow flags all across the city.”
Each of the SDTF doubles participants were paired with players from other countries for some of their matches, adding to their experiences in various ways.
For Walters, even though she didn’t medal, the women’s doubles competition with her partner from Switzerland was her favorite match.
“The level of competition was really tough,” she said. “We made some great friends. We were happy to be there, happy to meet people from all over the world, and happy to have the competition. It is kind of a unique experience in that way.”
Linke, who participated in his first Gay Games in Cologne four years ago, said he had practiced hard in preparation for Cleveland and, as a result, performed well in singles. His results were different for doubles.
“I was assigned a partner from Germany for men’s doubles and a partner from Switzerland for mixed doubles,” he said. “It was amazing to meet and play with partners from Europe, but without the benefit of having played together [before], we didn’t fair too well, losing in the first round in both divisions.”
Linke was able to mix some family time with his trip, as two of his sisters and a best friend from his hometown were all able to out and see him play.
Cleveland was Hoffman’s first Gay Games, and he made the most of it, attaining Gold and Silver in two of his competitions, something he said was “beyond my wildest expectations.” Hoffman roomed with Linke and Sanchez, and between them they brought back five medals.
“It made the entire trip so special because we made it to the last day [of tennis],” Hoffman said. “We were able to squeeze in viewing some other sports (volleyball and beach volleyball), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Cleveland Indians game.
“The City of Cleveland was a wonderful host and I will have very fond memories of the games etched in my mind,” Hoffman said, adding that the entire experience made him proud to be from the Midwest. “It just proved how far the area has come in the gay rights movement.”
The next Gay Games will be held in 2018 in Europe and Waters said they expect 15,000 to attend.
“The [Gay Games] is a wonderful event, filled with good sportsmanship, positive vibes, and new friendships,” Linke said. “I highly recommend that any athlete, regardless of age, gender, ability, or sexual orientation make it their goal to attend the next one in Paris. It is an all inclusive event, and is a wonderfully affirming experience.”