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GAY GAMES Rob Smitherman: Working (and playing) at the Games
Special to the Online Edition of Windy City Times

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Rob Smitherman will be playing basketball this summer in his fourth Gay Games … at least that's the tentative plan.

You see, he also has to work at the Gay Games, for the Gay Games. Just as he did in Chicago in 2006.

Smitherman, 50, an Uptown resident, has been living and working in Cologne, Germany—site of the quadrennial Games, which begin July 31—since Jan. 15. He is the sports manager, which, he said, "involves dealing with some of the issues and problems that arise in the areas of sport registration and organization, especially team sports."

Smitherman worked for the Chicago Gay Games and, therefore, met some of the Cologne organizers. And they then asked him to come to Cologne to help with their Games after talking with people in Chicago and the Federation of Gay Games.

"The experience has been great," Smitherman said. "The Games Cologne office is on Rudolfplatz, in the center of the gay area of downtown Cologne. The staff and volunteers are all very dedicated and committed to making the Cologne Games a great event."

Smitherman, who is single, had been an attorney in Virginia before moving to Chicago to work for the Chicago Gay Games. Since the end of the Chicago Games, he has been a consultant at a national real estate development company. Plus, he has been helping coach basketball at a local middle school.

"I knew [ working in Cologne ] would be interesting and sometimes challenging, but you never know what the issues will be," he said. "For instance, we are trying to find quality referees and officials. In Chicago [ in 2006 ] , we had challenges in some sports that were mainly [ dominated by ] European [ participants ] , while here it is harder to find officials in the more traditionally American sports," such as softball.

Smitherman managed eight sports in Chicago.

"Chicago had only two and a half years to prepare while Cologne has had more than four years. So planning here is hectic, but more relaxed and structured," he said. "I think the 2010 Games will be excellent, well-run and great fun.

"A major strength is the city of Cologne itself. The city center is small, very walkable. And many of the sports events are taking place in one area, the Sportpark and sport university, so soccer, softball, swimming, beach volleyball, water polo, track and field, and table tennis will all occur in the same area."

Smitherman predicted one of the biggest surprises of the 2010 Games will be, "how much fun people will have in Cologne, a city that can really put on a party."

And the sports will be world class, he added.

For example, the soccer tournament, which is almost at capacity, has teams from all over the world, including Australia, South Africa, Paris, the Czech Republic, Scotland, Japan and the United States.

Registration will be less what many organizers predicted, and below most of the past Games. The worldwide economic crisis is definitely hitting the Games directly.

"A large number of participants from the past Gay Games have come from the United States and Australia. But the cost of the trip to Europe, especially with the resent economic problems worldwide, has caused some participants to stay home," Smitherman said. "That said, we are expecting about 10,000 participants, and thousands of others who will just come for the events, sports, Opening and Closing ceremonies, and [ the ] parties."

Smitherman admitted that he isn't sure yet what his role will entail during the eight-day event, but he definitely wants to shoot some three-pointers and more for his basketball team.

"I have played basketball in all [ of my past Games ] , yet haven't gotten a medal. But that's just not that important for me," Smitherman said. "The feeling of participating in a gay sporting event, especially the Gay Games, is so fulfilling.

"I cannot wait to have my fellow Chicagoans come to Cologne and find the great sports, events and city hospitality that Chicago offered four years ago," he added.

Smitherman admitted that the cultural differences between Chicago and Cologne have been "a bit of a challenge." The language is one, although almost everyone speaks English to some degree. And, on Sundays and holidays, everything except restaurants and cafés are closed. So, no grocery stores, no laundromats, nothing.

"So, you have to plan well, and your Sundays are left without chores, a day to enjoy, go to a café or spend time with friends," he said. "Cologne is one of the two gay capitals of Germany, along with Berlin. It has more than a hundred gay bars, restaurants, pubs and shops. There is a huge gay population here, and it is very open. Cologne [ is ] the most liberal and accepting city in Germany, if not in Europe as a whole. The gay life here is great. And it has the largest gay sports group in the country, SC Janus."

So how does gay Cologne compare to gay Chicago?

"Well, Cologne has about 6 million fewer people, so it is hard to compare," Smitherman said. "They do have lots of 'club parties' here, more than [ in ] Chicago. I think. And the gay life is more dispersed—most of the city center is gay or gay-friendly—but there is no distinct neighborhood like Boystown or Andersonville. The bars are smaller, but they are less defined to one particular scene. And even though I have suggested it, no bar has a showtunes night [ like at the Chicago club Sidetrack ] or Male Call [ a feature at the Chicago club Roscoe's ] ."

Smitherman will remain in Cologne until a few weeks after the Games, and then he's back to Chicago—to look for a new job.

"I love this work and think it is important to us and for future generations of gays and lesbians," Smitherman said. "I grew up thinking that there was something wrong with me, I was not like everyone else. I finally figured out that I was gay and that was not wrong, but, in a small town, I thought that there were no other people like me who loved sports, competition and being part of a team.

"In the Gay Games and through gay sports in general, I found a more complete life. I hope that the Gay Games, and all the leagues and tournaments throughout the world can offer that to others. In many places we have 'won,' [ such as in ] the big cities of North America and western Europe we are at least tolerated if not accepted. But we have people coming from eastern Europe who cannot use their real names because they would face discrimination at home. We have countries of the world who consider being gay a criminal act punished by imprisonment or death. We have people in smaller towns in the U.S., Canada, Australia and western Europe who have never heard of the Gay Games and think they are alone in loving sports and athletics, and just happen to be gay. And we still have no out gay man, and very few open lesbians, playing in a major team sport throughout the world.

"Until we have equality throughout the world we need to offer gay sports, especially the Gay Games, to show that we are here, and we deserve to be treated fairly and without discrimination."

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