At Gay Games IV, athletes find corporate sponsors, politicians in the stands

June 24, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

New York -- The highlight?

It could have come opening night when Olympic diver Greg Louganis came out and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani showed up.

Or maybe it was at a skating rink in Coney Island when Stephane Vachon won the ice dance competition with a partner he met only 15 minutes before, a coach named Charles Sinek. Only later, after the medal ceremony, did Mr. Vachon realize that Mr. Sinek was heterosexual and he gasped, "Are you straight?"

Or maybe, just maybe, the highlight occurred on a hot, steamy day on Randalls Island, when Diane Batchelor, 35 pounds overweight, eight months pregnant, and in the midst of contractions, actually completed a 100-meter dash final, while in the stands, her companion cheered.

"No way was I going to let a pregnancy stop me from participating," Ms. Batchelor said.

She finished last but it didn't matter.

This is Gay Games IV, part sporting event, part social gathering.

The quadrennial event that concludes tomorrow night with closing ceremonies at Yankee Stadium has drawn more than 11,000 athletes and 500,000 spectators. It also has lured some heavyweight corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Miller Brewing and Naya Spring Water, which are seeking to make financial inroads with the gay and lesbian community.

Perhaps even more important, the event has cast a light on a community with some political clout, especially in key electoral states like New York and California.

There was a welcoming letter from President Bill Clinton, a speech to the athletes by Mayor Giuliani, even a basketball scrimmage with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

"We want people to know that we don't see this as a segregated event," said Gay Games executive director Jay Hill. "We see this as building bridges from the gay and lesbian community to other communities."

It was former U.S. Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell who founded the Games in San Francisco in 1982 and remained the driving force behind the event until he died of AIDS in 1987. Mr. Waddell sought "to educate people through sport in a spirit of better understanding."

From less than 2,000 competitors and a shoe-string budget in 1982, the Games have more than doubled in size each year.

Mostly, though, this is simply one giant party, a $6 million extravaganza stretching through four of New York's five boroughs. There is same-sex figure skating in Coney Island, tennis at Flushing Meadow and cycling in Central Park. And 29 other sports from aerobics to wrestling.

But this is an event filled with personal stories.

There is John Basile, HIV-positive for more than a decade, battling his way through the body-building competition with the same fervor he uses to fight the onset of full-blown AIDS. He didn't reach the physique finals held Wednesday before a passionate crowd at the Paramount Theater, but he strutted his best stuff on the stage, posing with the others, hearing cheers from the crowd.

"I've never been sick," he said, stripping off his shirt and displaying a heavily muscled upper body. "Staying healthy is very much a state of mind."

And for the past week, Mr. Basile said he has never been so overjoyed.

"I do think an event like this makes a difference," he said. "If we can show a very professional, organized front, if we can show our strength in numbers, we'll gain acceptance. We're bringing in $111 million in revenue into this city. Those are numbers that speak loudly to Mayor Giuliani."

The numbers also speak loudly to corporations and entrepreneurs who showed up at a Gay Shopping Mall set atop the Hotel Pennsylvania. Although organizers of the business fair have been accused by vendors of failing to live up to promises on attendance, the event displayed a remarkable array of products, from jewelry to shirts and credit cards.

Even the New York Times set up a booth.

"We want to channel spending and investment in the gay community to companies that have reached out to us," said Jim Nathan, hawking what he labeled the first gay national credit card.

"We've had some political setbacks in the past year or two with anti-gay laws," he said. "But we've made tremendous progress with corporate rights."

Still, the focus of the Games is on participation, not profit.

So there was Thomas Dolan, 36, a former football player and track star at the University of Calgary in Canada, winning a bronze medal in a 100 meters age group final and renewing ties with old friends. But one of those friends did not come this time, lost to AIDS.

In memory of others, Mr. Dolan has a red ribbon tattooed on his right shoulder.

"This is an opportunity to celebrate our own culture," he said.

Mr. Dolan said the Games received an emotional jolt when Mr. Louganis appeared via videotape at the opening ceremony and pronounced himself out and gay. It was an electrifying moment that brought cheers from the crowd. And when Mr. Louganis, America's most decorated Olympic diver, gave two exhibitions last week, he received even more cheers.

"Lots of people in the gay community did not know Greg Louganis was a gay man," Mr. Dolan said. "Now, he can be a role model for others.

So, too, can Ms. Batchelor, 30, a nanny born in England and now living on the Upper West Side of New York with her companion, Kathy Kuzmin. Despite the advanced state of her pregnancy, Ms. Batchelor raced not just in the 100, but in two relays and a 5-kilometer event.

"When people see me race, they yell, 'Yeah, go for it,' " she said. "Of course, there is some concern. Some pregnant women would have been told to stay at home. But not me."

Ms. Batchelor and her companion came to the Games to make new friends and make a stand. The expectant parents say they are already making plans for Gay Games V to be held in Amsterdam in 1998.

"We'll probably drop off our child at my mum's in England," Ms. Batchelor said. "But maybe by then they'll have some pee-wee runs for the kids. Who knows?"

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