How do you define a "winner?"

by Jim Provenzano
Bay Area Reporter
Oct. 1998

Gay Games VI
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         Does being competitive help us in our athletic pursuits? Many of us learned to despise competition as
         a "straight male thing," not appropriate for enlightened gay folk. But is competition, and the
         awarding of medals, good for us? 

         At the next annual meeting of the Federation of Gay Games in Seattle, delegates from around the
         world will consider redefining the goals of Gay Games. Among the topics, along with a lengthy
         discussions of the many successes and failures of Gay Games V, is the question of whether medals
         should be given out at all. 

         Some contend that medals make for a too-competitive environment. In an August article in London's
         Pink Paper, a lesbian swimmer contended that the events were too competitive, and that "pros" in
         the amateur environment "cheated" by lowering their estimated ability, so as to rack up extra medals. 

         "It was quite clear that some competitors were going all-out to win medals by qualifying for a lower
         category than they were really qualified," said British Gay Games organizer Sue Emerson. Letters
         following the article trashed the accusations as "sour grapes," as well as being "highly inaccurate." 

         Federation Executive Director Scott Mandell said that the medals debate "is not a new topic," one that
         is always considered in the discussion of the future of the Gay Games. 

         But how will people compete if there is no qualifying culmination, no assessment of who is the
         "best?" And how do athletes feel about medals? No sport has more competitors, and more medalists,
         than swimming. It also has some of the most driven jocks around. 

         And even if winning many medals are deserved, many medalists balanced the line between pride and
         modesty when displaying their wins. "Everybody's seen those people who went around Friendship
         Village clanking around with a bunch of medals," said one athlete. 

         With eight medals in swimming, 42-year-old Bart McDermott is one of those multi-medalists,
         although he admits he didn't do that much "clanking around." 

         McDermott swam to the level of All-American at Allegheny College in Philadelphia. After graduating
          and coming out in his mid-20's  he "pretty much took 15 years off" from swimming, however,
         and only started back into serious swimming in 1993 in preparation for Gay Games 1994 in New
         York. There, he "only" won a silver in the 200-meter butterfly, but it served to prove something to
         him, that he was good enough to work harder. "I put my life on hold to get ready for Gay Games,"
         said the San Francisco business consultant. 

         McDermott says he'll "take anyone on who wants to say it was too easy for me. I worked my tail
         off. I've been in Masters events where they just give out ribbons," a process he says diminishes the
         caliber of a competition. "The fact that these are the Gay Games almost necessitates medals." 

         McDermott doesn't "go running around bragging. I think they should keep giving out medals if
         people worked that hard." He mentioned the participant medals as a worthy reward for all. 

         "I understand that no-medals thinking," he said, "but it strikes me as odd that they'd be making this
         within the confines of Gay Games. It's not meant to be exclusive. This is an opportunity for people
         at all different levels to participate. It mirrors life." 

         As to the process of even discussing elimination of medals? "I'm sure [Gay Games founder] Tom
         Waddell is turning over in his grave." 

         Scrap medal 

         So, who is to say that McDermott was "too competitive?" Who can deny the victory of someone who
         competes in many events, and wins? Shouldn't that kind of participation, as well as that of novices,
         be encouraged? 

         A San Franciscan swimmer who "spent the entire week getting fourth and fifth places," Matt Lewis
         created a "scrap medal" category for himself. Knowing he would be able to pick up his participant
         medal at the Amsterdam train station on his way out, the modest yet talented competitor did
         eventually win a bronze toward the week's end, knowing "some people wouldn't show up after a
         week of competing." 

         Lewis was even more of a winner when he ended up in hosted housing in the suburb of Amersfoort,
         which is 35 kilometers from Amsterdam, but right where the crowded swimming events took place.
         Many criticized the distance between one of the more popular events and the host city itself. Others
         who didn't plan on the distance simply withstood the pre-dawn bus rides and 14-hour days at the
         pool. Such tenacity merits at least a participant medal. 

         But do we place too much value on ourselves in light of our medals? Hugh Cadena, a Toronto
         swimmer, thinks not. He received medals as a straight swimmer in his teen years, and more rewards
         as a gay swimmer, "but I'm still looking for gold, whatever that means for me." 

         "We have ex-Olympic medalist [Bruce Hayes] swimming with IGLA [International Gay and Lesbian
         Aquatics]," said Cadena. "A lot of people go to the events for the participation, friendship and fun,
         and others go for the 'gold' and they work hard for that. A medal from the Gay Games has a very
         special meaning and value, and is a way to obtain a reward for the efforts put into the competition."
         He sees it as a way for "gay athletes to show the world, friends, and ourselves that we are 'good

         Some feel even more emphatic about medals. "There is no hubris at having vanquished other
         homosexuals to have reached that point," says Jerry Keenan of Team Tampa Bay. He believes that
         medals exemplify "only the personal triumph of winning, of having done their best, and having been
         recognized for that accomplishment in a gay setting. Nothing could be so inspiring to closeted
         homosexuals and young gay people than to see those people who have reached the award platform at
         Gay Games standing tall and proud. It is something to strive for, to work for and to sacrifice for." 

         And while Keenan participated and did not win a medal, he was amongst the first to congratulate
         those who did. "I took great pride in the medals that were won by my teammates. Elimination of
         medals at the Gay Games will be their death." 

Amsterdam bookstore window display during Gay Games V

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