Imagine you have trained for 22 months to run your first marathon (that's 26.2 miles). When you arrive near dawn at the start line--eager, with a knotted stomach--you learn your race has been canceled due to quickly rising summer temperatures. You congregate with chagrined fellow runners chanting "mar-a-thon, mar-a-thon," clapping hands, and stomping the floor. A protest is mounted, evoking the spirit of an ACT UP rally. A lawyer, a nurse, and a writer prepare a manifesto. The race authorities are confronted by determined, articulate, lawsuit-threatening athletes. A compromise allows the race to proceed (with a time limit imposed to clear runners from the course before the tropical heat reaches dangerous levels). You run for three hours across sweltering pavement, fending off blackflies, until you encounter a hairy-legged man in a spangled miniskirt waving pink and white pom-poms and pointing toward the finish line.
Welcome to Gay Games VI.
I traveled to Sydney at the end of October, joining 13,000 athletes and several thousand spectators and Cultural Festival participants (drag-king comics, "positive" hip-hop artists, aboriginal sister-girl painters) for my first Gay Games. For nearly two weeks, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered visitors from around the world (mostly the prosperous parts of the world, namely North America and Europe) swarmed the streets, restaurants, hotels, and stadiums of Australia's glittering and friendly largest city, feeling welcomed by the smiles of the "Sydneysiders" and the orange and blue Gay Games banners that seemed to flutter everywhere.
The massive and moving opening ceremonies, directed by 2000 Olympic Games veteran Ignatius Jones, ran like clockwork, with k.d. lang, Jimmy Somerville, and Australia High Court justice Michael Kirby lifting the spirits of the stadium's capacity crowd to nearecstatic heights. Within a day or two, I proclaimed Sydney paradise and the Gay Games a smooth-running, community-based, inclusive celebration.
Then came the sweltering heat, reports of a looming financial boondoggle, some competitions held in sparsely attended venues, and evidence of scattered disorganization and discontent.
"It's the experience of a lifetime," said out Sydney-based actor Anthony Wong, a Games participant in tennis who will be introduced to American audiences in the upcoming Matrix sequels. "There was so much affirmation, celebration, unity--and fun--among gay people from different countries. But some aspects need to be improved."
The opening ceremonies remained the highlight of the Games for me and many others. I'll never forget marching across the field with two teammates from New York, embraced by the earsplitting cheers of the crowd. I will always remember two sights: a rugby player marching solo under the Iraqi banner (he lives in London) and competitors from India and Pakistan dancing into the stadium holding hands.
"Think of the people who extended so much effort to be here," said James Hormel, former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg and a tennis gold medalist in doubles. "That's what it's about."
Swimmer Manuel Bello, with the Nadadores of South Florida team, disagreed. "I'm here for the sport," he said. "Everything else is extra."
And make no mistake: Gay Games VI was about sports, offering 33 events in 36 venues and tough competition for high-caliber athletes. The divers, for example, were spectacular, exhibiting grace and skill worthy of any international competition. I met marathoners who planned to finish in an impressive three hours (or less). And several Gay Games swimming records were set during the first two days of competition.
But I used the goal of the Games to become an athlete, specifically a runner of marathons. I had been trotting half-heartedly on a treadmill at my gym when two friends encouraged me to join them at the Sydney Games. …