The Future is Bright - LGBT Sport

When I began to work for the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, I had no idea what to expect. As a seasoned professional from the mainstream sports world, I anticipated the usual challenges that come with the task of building sport. I did not anticipate that this journey would be such a ‘slugfest’, nor did I expect that in my first week on the job complete strangers on this very web site would publicly label me as immoral, unethical and incompetent.

The divide between the Federation of Gay Games and GLISA, between Chicago and Montreal, and between Gay Games and Outgames is hurting our community terribly. It casts both sides in a negative light. The world looks on in bemused amazement, because our potential is as enormous as our inability to achieve it. The perfectly logical question people are asking is, why would anyone take the risk of supporting us, partnering with us, or hosting our events if our community is so viciously divided?

My observations come from a place that may be different from those who have traditionally been involved in LGBT games. My background is sport, and only sport: professionally I earn my livelihood as a consultant in sport, and have done so for 15 years. I lecture in sport management at a Canadian university. Earlier in my career I held employment positions in municipal recreation, sport and culture departments, working with non-profit organizations to build community programs. Most recently I have been working almost exclusively with national sport governing bodies in Canada on strategic and technical planning, organizational development and change initiatives.

As I see it, the LGBT sport movement is a sleeping giant. My professional peers are envious that I have this unique opportunity to be a part of waking up this giant. Let me share some observations on what this task should, and could, entail. My hope in writing this is to challenge individuals to set aside their short-term interests and think about the bigger picture. And let me also be clear that these are my opinions, not the opinions of GLISA or of Montreal 2006.

Developing sport is not rocket science. The building blocks are the same across disciplines and demographics. Key among them: getting to a lot of people early (which in mainstream sport is usually through the school system), creating a pyramid structure so that participants can move seamlessly from novice to intermediate to advanced skill levels, and building a robust calendar of events that supports the skills pyramid and creates opportunities for play. There is a vast body of theory and literature about development models that can, and should, be consulted in designing a sport system for the LGBT community. Many of these models and successes just happen to come from Canada.

This concept of developing sport has a direct bearing on any discussion of LGBT games because historically, these games have been simply a quadrennial event. These events have also been quite isolated, in that there has been little transfer of knowledge, expertise or best practices from one event to the next. This lack of continuity makes partnership and sponsorship development practically impossible, and also has trickle-down effects on others. For example, I have learned that many city teams really only function about one-eighth of the time – or that final six month period of a four year cycle prior to an international games. Our challenge in developing LGBT sport is to make a transition from ‘event’ to ‘movement’, by investing smartly in the other seven-eighths of the quadrennial schedule.

Canada also has a strong tradition of hosting sport events. Our success at this is surprising given what a small country we are. Canadian sport policy at the federal level recognizes this particular strength we have and Canadian sport leaders are becoming much more strategic in their efforts to secure and stage hosted events. In recent memory Canada has hosted two Olympics (and is about to host a third), two Commonwealth Games, two Pan American Games, one World University Games, and numerous world championships in hockey, curling, figure skating, track and field and, next year, aquatics. I recite this list only to substantiate that there is a significant body of knowledge developed in Canada on successful hosting of major sporting events.

Legacy is another vital principle that must be reflected in the development of any successful sport movement. The concept of legacy means that a sporting event leaves its host community better off than it was before. Legacy can be physical, program-based or personnel-based. Physical legacy includes new and improved facilities that did not exist previously. Program-based legacies are the activities made possible by the facilities and other resources brought together through hosting partnerships. Personnel legacies are the professional staff and volunteers in the community who have gained new skills and experience. Taken together, all these legacies create a ‘capacity’ to maintain and grow sport that did not exist before.

In Canada, the impact of sport legacies is visible. For example, today’s legacy of Calgary hosting the Winter Olympics in 1988 is world-class winter sports facilities as well as top-quality sport programs operating out of these facilities, supported by sport science and research. National teams from around the world now come to Calgary for extended periods of time to train. Almost half of the Canadian team competing at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 were athletes and coaches who lived and trained in Calgary, and this ratio will likely exceed 50 percent for the Torino Olympic Winter Games.

The impact of legacy is also visible in Edmonton, Alberta, which has in recent years hosted a World University Games, a Commonwealth Games, a soccer world junior championship, a world figure skating championship, and a world track and field championship – the first one to be held in the Americas and only the second one to be held outside Europe. Next year Edmonton hosts the World Masters Games, and the year after that the Women’s World Cup of Rugby. This is all pretty heady stuff for a small city on the northern Canadian prairie. How does Edmonton do it? Because the legacy of thousands of skilled volunteers created by the Commonwealth Games in 1978 has been continuously enhanced by each successive international hosting experience, such that today, Edmonton has a global reputation for staging a well-organized event.

The purpose of these anecdotes about sport development, hosting and legacy is to simply demonstrate that there are instructive lessons to be learned from mainstream sport successes. The gay and lesbian sport movement has the luxury of taking these practices and implementing the best of them in our LGBT world. No wheel needs to be reinvented. None of us needs to try anything new or unproven. Everything that the LGBT global sport community needs to thrive and grow has been done before. The insights, lessons, templates and best practices are all there, just waiting for us to pick and choose the best ones and put them into effect.

I firmly believe that the future holds incredible promise, notwithstanding this nasty divisive phase. I see a gay and lesbian sport movement that offers a compelling competition calendar to create continuous opportunities for participants; competitive events featuring the highest standards of facilities and organization; growing capacity at every level of the LGBT sport system, from local to international; events that are fully sanctioned by mainstream international sport governing bodies; and a viable business model for hosting games, whether offered on a national, continental and world scale.

As I look ahead, a see a number of possible options or outcomes. The Gay Games and the Outgames could continue to compete against each other until ultimately one succeeds and one folds its cards and goes home. Or, the two games could learn to co-exist peacefully. The games could differentiate themselves by having one focus on large world events while the other focuses on smaller continental events. Or, one could focus on the North American market while the other does games elsewhere in the world. The two games could duplicate each other but go on alternating cycles so that there is a large world event every two years. Or, the two games could become distinctive based on their menu of sports, such as summer versus winter, or indoor versus outdoor. These are just some ideas off the top of my head, all drawn from the experiences of the mainstream sport world. You can’t disagree that some of these outcomes are attractive. What a luxury to have this much potential and all these opportunities in our future!

Let’s think bigger than we have been doing. Our community out there, the hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian sportsmen and sportswomen around the world, both expect and deserve it. We owe it to them. This is about them, not about the FGG, GLISA, Montreal, Chicago, or our respective ‘brands’, the Gay Games and the Outgames. Let’s put the last year behind us, take insights and lessons from those who have traveled this path countless times before, and work together on the bright future that is LGBT sport.

Originally published: www.outsports.com December 11th 2004

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