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The Origin of the Gay Games Movement

Can you imagine changing social attitudes and having fun doing it? That’s what the Games are all about.

                                                                                                            – Dr. Tom Waddell

The person most closely associated with the Gay Games is American Dr. Tom Waddell (1937-1987). Affable and charismatic, he had the rare capacity to inspire. He combined those qualities with his deep belief in the power of “coming out” to foster a movement.

In 1968, Waddell competed as a decathlete at Mexico’s Olympic Games. He was out as a gay man at his job as a physician with the U.S. military. However, like all LGBTQ2S+ athletes at that time, he knew he would not be allowed to compete as an out athlete.

View this video with a transcript: “Tom Waddell: The Origin of the Gay Games”

For Waddell, and much of the world, the most memorable event at that Olympics was the protest against racism by black U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. When they raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads atop the medal podium Waddell was deeply moved. Others were outraged. Asked by a reporter if the athletes had discredited the American flag, Waddell responded, “I think they have been discredited by the flag more than they have discredited it.” [1]

As an ally of Smith and Carlos, he was a vocal proponent of their message and collaborated with them behind the scenes as an assistant speech writer.  As a gay athlete, he was inspired by the potential for athletes to challenge – and maybe even change – societal attitudes.

Over the next decade and a half, Waddell emerged as a leader in San Francisco’s LGBTQ2S+ community. It was during this time that his idea of an Olympic-style sporting event for the LGBTQ2S+ community  was solidified.  

View this video with a transcript: “Tom Waddell: A Statement on the Quality of Our Lives”

In 1980, Waddell, with friends Paul Mart and Mark Brown, created the San Francisco Athletics & Art Committee. They began preparations for a sports event where people of any sexual orientation or ability would compete together. Founding principles of the Gay Games were participation, inclusion, and achieving personal best. Waddell saw the Games as a mechanism for LGBTQ2S+ people to be out, challenge stereotypes, and change the status of “gays and lesbians”[2] in society.

View this video with a transcript: “Tom Waddell: Formula for Success” 

Gay Games I opened on August 28, 1982, in San Francisco, California. LGBTQ2S+ competitors from 170 cities worldwide marched into Kezar Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies heralding a movement that continues today.


[1] “Dr. Waddell Backs Ousted Stars”, The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey, United States), Friday, October 18, 1968, Page 3.
[2] Tom Waddell from interview with Mary Anne McEwen, 1983. “gays and lesbians” in quotes is used in this exhibition to accurately represent the original statement of the subject. When referring to the community in its broadest sense LGBTQ2S+ is used in this exhibit.