How a geeky gay boy became a sports hero and is now spearheading the bid to provide an LGBT legacy from the London 2012 Olympics
I’m in my mid-40s. School sports on the rugby fields of Wales was not inspiring for a young gay boy, slightly geeky and the shortest in the class. Games lessons would start with the humiliating ceremony of the two sportiest jocks being selected by the PE teacher, and they would pick off, one by one, the fittest lads for their teams. I would always be left until last – which meant I wasn’t even chosen at all.
So I don’t know what possessed me, when I moved to London at 21, to flyer the West End promoting a gay softball game in Hyde Park. I’d only ever played the game once. The first day I stood in the rain waiting for people to turn up, no-one did. The following week I did the same, still raining, two people turned up, so we went down the pub. By the end of that first summer over 200 people were turning out each week to play, support or watch. The London Raiders softball team is now one of the largest softball clubs (gay or straight) in the world.
Back then, in 1989, I wasn’t aware of any other gay sports clubs, though there were a handful. Most LGBT people I knew spent their weekends in the nightclubs. Today I know of 80 clubs in the UK (and there must be more) who provide safe and fun spaces for LGBT people all over Britain to participate in every major sport or discipline. And not only are the clubs ‘gay’ – many of them excel in their sport. Nearly 900 Brits registered to compete in the Cologne Gay Games in 2010 and over 29 world records were broken in the pool alone.
So what has this to do with an Olympic legacy?
I volunteered for the Opening Ceremony. Quite honestly, the audition, on 14 February, was the best ‘gay party’ I’ve been to this year! When it came to rehearsals, the volunteers were so mixed, so diverse, that no-one assumed anyone was gay or straight. I’ve never felt more included in mixed company before. There was a story about Grindr crashing due to the activity in the Olympic Village at the start of the Olympics – all I can say is that it was likely to be a good proportion of 7,500 volunteers, as I didn’t see a single athlete on it.
But London 2012 Olympics will not automatically create a legacy for LGBT people in the UK. We have to create it but there has been no better time than now. We have the best new facilities, loads of LGBT sports clubs, coaches, role models, LGBT medallists, events and organisations, and, in London at least, the most acceptance in non-LGBT sports clubs.
LOCOG (the Olympic organizers in Britain) and the LLDC (The Olympic Park Legacy Company) certainly have some impressive legacy plans for London built into the structure of the games. Looking at the sad dilapidated sites of Athens and Beijing especially facilities like the white water kayak centres, I cannot see London going that way. Stratford has been transformed, whether we like it or not, by the Westfield Centre – it is now one of the most buzzing places in London to be – and has been since it opened, months before the Olympics. It even has a Balan’s (the famous ‘gay’ restaurant which started on Old Compton Street). The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (as it will be called) has detailed plans for housing, businesses, sports, leisure and open air concerts on the north and south lawns. It would be a great space for a Pride festival, when the park reopens in 2014.
I’ve been working with the LLDC for some months on the bid to host the Gay Games in the park in 2018. If we win the bid, it will be the first Gay Games to use an Olympic venue, and one of the first legacy projects to use the whole site. London is also bidding for many other international sports festivals, and based on the amazing facilities we have, we are likely to win them. There is even a cycle road race planned that will end in front of Buckingham Palace.
Meanwhile, I’m preparing for the Gay Games in another way too ¬– by trying a different sport every six months. When I came to kayaking, there was no specific gay club. So I joined my local ‘straight’ club. I have to say I was a bit nervous. Showing with the guys afterwards, or sharing tents on wet weekends in Wales? What would they think of me? I had nothing to fear – I found the club (Battersea Canoe Club) the most welcoming place to be. The lads would ask how the Gay Games bid was going every week. In my experience, sport does not have to be so segregated any more, unlike my school days.
The Olympics gets everyone so excited about sport, even those who are not regular sports fans. Especially this year with Britain winning so many medals. Contrary to press reports, Team GB has a number of LGBT athletes and medal winners this year. Congratulations! (Although not all of them are ‘out’.) The ‘halo effect’ propels ordinary people into trying out new sports. This year Out for Sport, an LGBT sports festival running from 13 to 19 August, is giving everyone a chance to try 21 new sports. This will give individuals access to clubs, coaches and facilities: sailing, football, basketball, water polo, running, kickboxing, dance sport, bridge, squash, swimming, hockey, volleyball, roller derby, synchronised swimming…
The 2012 Olympics made good on its promise to ‘inspire a generation’ – but legacy won’t happen by itself. It will happen with the imagination and effort of you and me. I have pretty big plans for an LGBT legacy, London’s LGBT sports clubs and organisations are already making that happen. When the Olympics are over, things are just beginning. We have the World OutGames in Antwerp next year, something everyone can join in with. We have the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, the Gay Games in Cleveland Ohio.
We could sit back and watch, and complain, that the Olympics are over and we’ve blown £11billion ($17billion â‚¬14billion). Or we can use this opportunity to go from strength to strength, and have a lot of fun along the way.
Jonathan Harbourne is the founder of the London Raiders, co-chair of London 2018 (london2018.info), the bid to host the Gay Games at the Olympic Park, and founder of the London Gay Bikers and LGBThistoryUK.org. You can contact him on [email protected].