Out and onward

Runner competed in gay games in 1952

Seattle-based runner and coach Len Tritsch has seen a lot in his 86 years, but says nothing beats watching the opening ceremonies of both the Gay Games and World Outgames hes attended in past decades.

Its an unbelievable experience to watch thousands of gay and lesbian athletes marching together, says Tritsch. Of course the mayors and governors get to add their two cents about how great gay people are.

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Tritsch will both compete and coach next week during the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association North America Outgames Vancouver 2011, which takes place across the city, Whistler and Burnaby from July 25 to 30. The first World Outgames was held in Montreal in 2006. More than 12,000 participants took part in the 36 sporting events, three-day human rights conference and 12 days of cultural celebrations. Since then World Outgames have taken place in Copenhagen, Denmark and Wellington, New Zealand. The first North America Outgames took place in Calgary in 2007, making the Vancouver event the second such games on the continent.

Tritsch, who started competing in track and field in 1939, competed and coached at the Montreal and Copenhagen World Outgames. In Vancouver, hell compete with and coach the Seattle Frontrunners, the Seattle-based branch of an international walking and running club comprised of more than 300 gay and lesbian members and their friends. He will compete for medals in the 100, 200 and 400-metre races. Tritsch competed in an early version of the modern-day Gay Games in 1952 in which about 150 athletes took part. Now were in the thousands, he says. I was in Vancouver when it hosted the Gay Games in 1990, so Im looking forward to the Outgames.

While the event is expected to draw athletes and tourists from around the world, the fact the North America Outgames is considered almost mainstream in Vancouver speaks volumes about the state of politics and society in our city today.

Vancouver in 2011 is a much different city than the one that hosted the Gay Games in 1990, an event that saw protesters from a conservative church in the Fraser Valley take out full-page ads in the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers warning of the impending sodomite invasion and asking people to gather at Empire Stadium to pray the games be stopped. And while the Social Credit provincial government under then-premier Bill Vander Zalm refused to help fund the event, the current B.C. Liberal government contributed $75,000 towards the sports events and $81,000 for the human rights conference for the Vancouver Outgames 2011. The rest of the $1.25 million budget was paid for by a combination of athletic registration, corporate sponsorship, donations and ticket sales.

Ron Dutton, who houses the B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives in his West End home, says while the Outgames will likely be a success as a celebration of sport, he believes it wont have the same political and social implications as the 1990 Gay Games. Its 20 years later and time has moved on and the community has matured, says Dutton. The impact the Gay Games had socially and politically was astounding, but now things are a little more mainstream so I dont see that happening, but who knows. Well have to wait and see.

Dutton plans to document the event by collecting photographs, programs, posters, hand-outs and every single media story in print or online available. His focus will not be so much on the sporting events but instead on the cultural and social aspects, such as the human rights conference. Dutton says the 1990s Gay Games had a huge impact on Vancouvers gay and lesbian communities and the entire city. After the Gay Games, the community became part of the fabric of the city, says Dutton. It was a major coup and I think the community turned a corner with the Gay Games. It was then Vancouver society realized with a greater sense the contribution of the gay and lesbian population.

John Boychuk, former president of the Vancouver Pride Society, joined the bid committee to bring the Outgames to Vancouver in 2009 at the request of Greg Larocque, president of the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association North America.

Now president of the Vancouver Outgames, Boychuk says a team of seven volunteers made the event possible by dedicating three-and-a-half-years and thousands of hours working with local sports groups, government and GLISNA. Besides Boychuk and Larocque, the Vancouver Outgames team includes Dan Quan, Maxine Davis, Pat Hogan, Dean Nelson, Brad Bostock, Barb Snelgrove and Mike Fox, with GLISNA acting as official host.

Boychuk describes the event as an incredible week of friendly sport, human rights and community celebrations throughout Metro Vancouver and Whistler. Boychuk says its important to host a focused event like the Outgames because its welcoming and open to everyone, including heterosexuals.

Inclusive friendly sport within our community breaks down barriers and builds on the foundation of equality through sport and community outreach, he says. Friends, families, allies and sponsors are all welcome to be part of this grass-roots event that will see the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, trans-sexual, queer, questioning, two spirited and inter-sexed community come out.

Boychuk says athletes living in countries where homosexuality is illegal also need an opportunity to compete in a safe environment. Freedom to be who they are without the fear of prosecution is one step to having them take home a renewed sense of support from the international community, says Boychuk, while providing a safe environment for education and the sharing of the liberties we have won through our own challenges.

Like the World Outgames, the North American version is part culture, part human rights and part sports. The sports are part athletic, part strategic and all fun. Competitive Outgames sports in Vancouver include badminton, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, track and field, volleyball, poker, Dance Sport, a four-kilometre walk, 10-kilometre run and the 6K Vertical Challenge that will see athletes from around the world tackle the infamous Grouse Grind on Grouse Mountain.

But for some, the Outgames is about serious competition.

Some, like the very fast runner Carlo Deason from Houston, have a level of performance they keep up by these competitions, says Larocque. And this year, for the first time ever there will be North America cups in soccer and volleyball, so you can be sure these individuals and teams will be taking these sports very seriously. Many of them will have trained for their event in the Outgames and will expect to do well.

Athletes to watch for include Vancouvers Patrick Tham in the 10K, Calgarys soccer team, Vong Sundara from Toronto in badminton and Len Tritsch, Dean Koga and the other members of the Seattle Frontrunners, according to Larocque.

Local organizers estimate more than 1,000 athletes will take part in the Outgames, accompanied by 500 coaches, spouses, travel partners and family members. Another 200 participants are taking part in the Outgames Human Rights Conference while thousands more will take in events as spectators. The human rights conference has a focus on youth, seniors, health and well-being, the law, human rights in the work place, education, spirituality and sport.

The Vancouver Outgames also includes the Womenzone, a safe space for women, their friends and guests to gather for entertainment, exhibits and most importantly, to party.

More than 4,000 participants are expected at the Closing Ceremony Party July 30 at the Plaza of Nations, which opens with the Breakfast of Champions at 11 a.m. and carries on until 11 p.m. with headliners Ace of Base and Dragonette and performers Kim Kuzma, Alice Ai, Carole Pope and Matthew Presidente. Marlee Walchuk and Nathalie Callender of Sugarbeach, who wrote the Outgames theme song Come on Out, will also perform. Medal presentations will take place throughout the day, while the official Closing Ceremony happens at 6 p.m. The Sails at Canada Place will be lit with the colours of the rainbow in honour of the Outgames and Pride.

The medals for the Outgames were designed by artist Corinne Hunt, who helped create the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic medals for the 2010 Winter Games. Hunt incorporated the Outgames theme of Sea, Sky and Land in her design, while graphic designer Carol Weaver helped bring the artists vision to life. The design for the Outgames medal incorporates the beauty of the West Coast environment, the seas orca, the lands wolfs tail and the skys raven, says Hunt.

The Outgames correspond with Pride Week in Vancouver this year, which combined with the annual Celebration of Lights fireworks festival will ensure hotel rooms are full and restaurants packed with celebrants.

Walt Judas, vice-president of marketing communications with Tourism Vancouver, says Pride alone attracts tens of thousands of visitors. And those numbers are growing. The combination of Pride with the Outgames and Celebration of Light makes this a very busy time, says Judas. July and August this year are very strong and hotels are full and virtually sold out.

Boychuk says the Outgames committee worked closely with the Vancouver Pride Society because they always intended to overlap the two large events. Pride Week coincides with the Outgames culminating with the Pride Parade July 31, in which Outgames athletes will march.

It was the original plan to see this event raise the communitys profile and to have the West End and downtown core burst at the seems with Pride during the traditional long-weekend celebrations, says Boychuk.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Tim Stevenson, one of two gay city councillors (the other being COPEs Ellen Woodsworth), says the combined Outgames and Pride events will be a significant boost to Vancouvers tourism industry and international profile. This is a big deal for small businesses, he says. Pride alone sees hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, so this will ensure hotel rooms, restaurants and clubs will be packed.

Stevenson notes the United States already recognizes the spending power of vacationing gays and lesbians and he believes this combination of Pride and the Outgames will show the world Vancouver is an ideal holiday destination. He notes Pride events in Vancouver have never prompted any riots, and he expects the Outgames will maintain that tradition.

Pride is always a peaceful, fun-loving event and no windows have ever been smashed, he says, referring to the June 15 riot that followed the Canucks loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Even with 500,000 people on the streets for Pride, theres never any trouble.

VPD Const. Lindsey Houghton says Pride Week celebrations and the Pride Parade have a history of drawing tens of thousands of people to the West End for an event the VPD is extremely proud to participate in.

Tritsch says one of the highlights of the Outgames is meeting athletes from other countries, many whom live in areas where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by jail or the death penalty. During the 2010 Olympic Games held in Vancouver last February, a team of lawyers and immigration specialists was on call for athletes seeking asylum in Canada from countries where homosexuality is illegal. Those same services will be made available to athletes and attendees participating in the Outgames. While the majority of participants are from North America, the balance includes representatives from more than 10 countries worldwide, including Africa and India.

Tritsch supports the scholarships made available through the Outgames organization for athletes from places such as Africa and East Asia because the reality is many wouldnt be able to attend without them. Despite language barriers, words are unnecessary to realize the joy on these athletes faces as they compete freely without fear of arrest or recrimination for the first time., he says.

They are so in awe. Its fun to watch the sparkle in their eyes.

Opening Ceremony events begin inside council chambers at city hall July 25 at 11 a.m., where Stevenson and Woodsworth will host a meeting with the public and members of the Outgames and Pride organizations. At noon, the celebration moves outside and the Running of the Flags, which includes 70 runners of varying ability, begins at 1 p.m. Runners will carry the flags in and around the University of B.C., the West End, Simon Fraser University, Whistler and Grouse Mountain, before converging on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 6 p.m. for the Opening Ceremony. See vancouver2011outgames.com for more information.

See Community Calendar on page 19 for more Outgames and Pride Week event listings.

sthomas@vancourier.com

Twitter @sthomas10

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