Gay Games VIII kicked off July 31 with a bangof fireworks, that is.
An estimated 30,000 attended the opening ceremony to the quadrennial sports and cultural extravaganza, held in Cologne, Germany, and running through Saturday, Aug. 7. The opening, held inside RhineEnergie Stadium, was aired live via the Internet.
The three-hour spectacle featured fire-eaters, dancers, drummers, cheerleaders, musicians and plenty of speeches. Australian gold medal-winning diver Matthew Mitcham read the athletes' oath.
To kick off the opening ceremony, the traditional participant march, country by country, welcomed about 9,500 athletes from 65 countries.
The lone participant from Angola was first, while the host city, Cologne, with its 900 athletes, marched in last.
About 2,500 people from the United States are participating, second-most to Germany, and it took about four minutes for all the Americans to enter the stadium. Team Chicago was among the first American teams to enter.
Team Chicago sported stylish blue uniforms and the familiar City of Chicago flag, big and small, was easy to spot.
Other countries, meanwhile, were plenty sporty, so to speak, for their entrance. Thailand participants were in native garb; the South Africans blew in with their vuvuzelas, made popular ( or hated ) during this summer's World Cup; and the British waved a pink Union Jack.
German Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle, the highest-ranking patron in the history of the Gay Games, was among the first speakers.
"We will never forget the generation that fought for our freedom," Westerwelle said. "Our thoughts are with all lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in the world, who are still treated like criminals."
Singers Agnes and Taylor Dayne closed the opening ceremony. Agnes sang her hit single "Release Me," while Dayne sang multiple songs, including the Games' official anthem, "Facing A Miracle."
"I have been to several opening ceremonies, but Cologne did us queers right," said Sonya Lewis of Team Colorado, a tennis participant. " [ There was ] a feeling [ that ] everything is right with the world [ at the opening ceremony ] .
"The volunteers and organization was right on. You felt secure, yet free to be anything and who you are. Intermittent rain did not deter any spirits and there was ample time for reunions, kisses and hugs. Many athletes have attended these competitions dating back to 1982 and it showed by the squeals of glee and joy."
Kien Tran, a track competitor from San Francisco, was thrilled to walk into the opening ceremonywithout help. He was injured about three weeks ago and said he was "lucky" to walk at the opening ceremony without crutches.
Tran carried the San Francisco Track & Field Club's banner during its march into the stadium.
"The competition this time seems very stiff," Tran said. "I will have to scratch both the 100-meter and the 200-meter [ races ] as they are too high impact [ following my foot injury ] . My hope is in the 800-meter, 400-meter, as well as the 4x100, 4x200, and 4x400 [ races ] . My first event is [ Aug. 4 ] ."
Tran said that, despite the light rain during the opening ceremony, most attendees were on their feetand Westerwelle was given a standing ovation.
"His sweet and short message was that no religions can use religion as an excuse to condemn [ people in the LGBT community, ] " Tran said.
Tran also registered for billiards, which, no doubt, will be a lot less stressful on his injured foot.
Westerwelle has a partner, and mentioned him during his speech.
The opening ceremony was, though, criticized by some attendees who said it was way too long and boring, and that the athleteswhere they were positioned in the standscould not hear the speeches.
Several told Windy City Times that they left the event early because they were simply bored.
"One can mostly sleep through it," Team Chicago's Kyle Chang said of the opening ceremonyand he actually emailed that quote during the Opening. "The first hour of the ceremonies involved speeches, which increased beer and food sales, but did little in the way of capturing participant attention."
Jim Buzinski of Los Angeles, the co-founder of Outsports.com, reported that, after the procession of athletes, the opening ceremony was "snoozeville."
Chang praised the DJ for the opening ceremony and said that Agnes, "brought some energy and life to the celebration."
Andy Burke, who lives in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, reported nothing but praise for his international journey, so far.
"I love Germany," he said late Sunday ( Chicago time ) . "The people I've met from Germany and around the world are friendly and warm. We've been here for three days and it's been a whirlwind. Traveling around Cologne is easy on their trains. Cologne is welcoming to the Gay Games participants."
Burke is playing volleyball for Chicago Defiance, and the team played well on Day One, he said.
"Most of us [ on this team ] don't regularly play with one another like the teams we've played [ against, such as ] Germany, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. Day One competition was strong and as we move forward in the week, we look for the level to rise.
"The bar scene is fun. I'm not used to walking the streets with an open container of alcohol. There are different pockets of gay bars throughout Cologne. The food has been yummy. It's interesting to see all of the cobble stone streets and historical buildings; that's very different from the United States."
Jessica Andrasko of Chicago also is playing volleyball in the Games, and her team went undefeated on Day One ( Sunday ) , not even losing a game. They played France, Netherlands and Germany. "We are on our way to gold," she said.
Steve Orellana, a paramedic from Palm Bay, Fla., has been training for his first triathlon since Januaryand he captured first-place on August 1 at the Games, winning the Olympic Distance Triathlon Main Class ( 18-29 age group ) .
And what did Orellana do for an encore? He competed in the 10K road race a couple days later.
Kurt Dahl, the co-President of the Federation of Gay Games ( FGG ) and a Chicago-area resident, spent time Aug. 2 with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.
"I have just spent entire day with U.S. ambassador Phil Murphy, touring various venues," Dahl said. "Ambassador Murphy, along with Vice Mayor Angela Spizig, handed out Gay Games medals to swimmers and divers, did the kickoff to open the first soccer game, and stayed to watch the last half of [ a ] water-polo game.
"Ambassador Murphy also spent considerable time meeting with the athletes, asking about their events, how they did, where they are from and posed [ for ] endless amount of photos. He also asked some great questions about the Gay Games, the LGBT community and about gay sports in general.
"It was a great opportunity for the FGG, the LGBT community and for Games Cologne to have such a high-ranking U.S. government official to be part of the Gay Games, albeit for a short time."
Dahl said the sports venues are great and many sports are within walking distance of each other: "In one day, I was able to watch my partner play softball, watch swimming, beach volleyball and then head over to watch some diving and water polo games, and then soccer.
"Cologne is so welcoming with Gay Games VIII flags all around the city and rainbow flags even more prominent then usual in this very gay-friendly city.
"The opening ceremonies was the opening salvo to a great week of celebration and even some rain could not dampen the revelry and the party atmosphere that emanated from the almost 10000 participants and crowd estimated at 25000. The two musical acts were fantastic and the finale with Taylor Dayne in the center of fire singing the Gay Games VIII anthem was not only amazing, but very moving. The celebration continued as people exited the stadium and onto the trams and into the downtown area.
"It has been a great start and I look forward to a great rest of [ the ] week. Games Cologne and the City of Cologne should be very proud host of Gay Games VIII."
Area residents have already made their mark in Cologne. Chicagoan Jeff Clark won his first two softball games Aug. 1, although he was playing for a Philadelphia team. Kevin Boyer of Chicago also is playing softballfor an Indianapolis team.
"My impressions, very well organized with plenty of enthusiastic volunteers," Boyer said. "Cologne has hit a home run."
"So far, so good," said Outsports.com co-founder Cyd Zeigler. "The organizing committee has done a great job putting this event together. The sports I've visited so far have all been efficient, on time and very well-organized. I'm impressed. The social atmosphere is fantastic. They've developed essentially a street fair in the gay area of town where it seems everyone is congregating both day and night. It's created a great feeling of camaraderie and unity that has been fantastic to be a part of.
"It's hard to find a criticism so far. If there's one [ negative ] , it's that there were too many speeches to start the opening ceremony. The entire first hour was speech after speech. But after that, the energy picked up and the entertainment was exciting."
The Games also had a sad and scary moment for multisport competitor Hector Torres of Orlando, Fla. He was severely injured during the bicycling portion of the triathlon and had to be taken to the hospital.
"I was top five out of the water overall and top three on the bike," Torres said Aug. 2. "This [ other competitor ] geared left when he was not supposed to and I flew of my bike." Torres had a "fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, a bad ankle and a bruised hip." Torres' prognosis was unknown before the press deadline.
The weather in Cologne has been overcast and in the 70s for the first few days.
"People marched into RhineEnergie Stadium in high spirits," said Chicagoan Paul Oostenbrug. "There were more than 100 Chicagoans in the procession, most of them in uniform. Since there did not seem to be much order to how participants from the United States were ordered, Chicago ended up towards the front of the lineup, which was nice.
"I had marched into the stadium with the Federation of Gay Games board and honorees, since I am a board member. Then I looped back to march in with Team Chicago, passing exotically dressed Thais, Mexicans, and Samoans. And a lone Pakistani. Teams marched into the stadium through two entrances, which speeded things up a bit.
"The [ opening ceremony ] started off with speeches. People particularly liked the gay German foreign minister, though he was whistled at [ booed ] by the Germans in the audience, [ perhaps ] because he is in the Conservative Party. Or [ maybe ] because he came out late in life. Who knows?"
Chicagoans Jerry Johnson and Curt Eakle were part of the chorus that performed at the opening ceremony.
For the first time, there was an orchestra ( the Cologne Rainbow Symphony Orchestra ) accompanied the chorus.
Oostenbrug added, "Chicagoan Dick Uyvari, who has been to every Gay Games except Sydney, said that this was the most impressive opening ceremony he had ever seen. Personally, I thought that the exploding volcano in Sydney was pretty spectacular, but I really enjoyed this one."
Oostenbrug spent most of Aug. 1 working at the FGG booth in Neumarkt, "where there was all day, and most of the night, entertainment," he said. "The crowd was really upbeat and happy to be here at Gay Games VIII.
"Chicagoan Jere Kelly remarked at how the Gay Games movement has come to maturity. He admired the tremendous amount of work that people from Cologne, people connected with the Federation of Gay Games, and volunteers from around the world had put forth. This 'base' allows the Games to take place every four years, getting stronger with each new edition."
The Federation of Gay Games announced this week they are ending the relationship with the host group for Gay Games IX in Cleveland, but still intend to remain in Cleveland for the 2014 Gay Games. See more online and in next week's issue.
Windy City Times reporter Ross Forman is compiling a list of Chicagoans who competed in Gay Games VIII in Cologne, Germany. If you have not already been in contact with Ross, would you please email him at Rossco814@aol.com and include the following information:
Sport ( s ) participated in:
Medal ( s ) won:
The Windy City Times will have continuing coverage over the next few weeks from the athletes and more of the Cologne Gay Games.