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What the Gay and Northern Games Can Teach Us About the Olympics

There are many ways of thinking about sports.

By Francie Diep


A runner prepares to begin a track and field event at the Gay Games VII at Hanson Stadium July 21, 2006, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games have some pretty lofty goals.

According to the Olympic Charter, the Games seek to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport.” The Charter asserts that “the practice of sport is a human right.”

It might all sound a bit haughty, but there’s evidence to support the Charter’s statement. A United Nations inter-agency task force, for example, concluded in 2003 that “sport-based initiatives are practical and cost-effective tools to achieve objectives in development and peace.”

At the same time, throughout the Games’ history, various groups and organizations have argued that the Olympics—and modern sports culture in general—aren’t inclusive enough. In response, some founded their own athletic games to counter them. Below, Pacific Standard takes a look at a couple of our favorite alternative Olympics and Olympics-like festivals, based on a 2012 review of sports anthropology. The history highlights some intriguing questions, including: Are sports really a neutral, universal value? (Spoiler: No.) What even counts as a sport?

Gay Games

In 1982, decathlete Tom Waddell founded the Gay Games in response to what he saw as racism, sexism, and homophobia in the Olympics. Waddell’s event was originally called the Gay Olympics, but in the late 1980s, the United States Olympic Committee successfully sued him for his unauthorized use of the word.

Besides running a more diverse Games, Waddell, who finished sixth at the 1968 Olympics, hoped to dispel the homophobic belief that gay men are never athletic and masculine, Caroline Symons writes in The Gay Games: A History. Later Gay Games leaders envisioned the event as a way of undermining traditional gender roles, Symons writes. Now a multimillion-dollar affair, the Gay Games have dealt with their own debates about whether they’re inclusive enough of queer identities beyond lesbian and gay, participants of color, and participants with HIV/AIDS.

Native Games

In 1970, Native Canadians organized the first Northern Games as a counter to the government’s Arctic Winter Games, which critics said featured a disproportionate number of white participants — considering how many native people live north of the 60th parallel — and ignored sports developed by northern First Nations. (Today, the Arctic Winter Games feature competitions in five “Dene games,” developed by the Dene people of the Northwest Territories.)

Though initially underwritten by various Canadian sports and recreation departments, the Northern Games soon struggled to retain its funding, according to researcher Victoria Paraschak. Funders debated whether events such as seal skinning and musk-ox wrestling counted as “sports” or “cultural activities.” In response to a government report finding the Northern Games were “nonsport,” the Northern Games Association wrote:

[I]ts focus is on games and sport. Sports in the south also are cultural events with a different purpose (i.e., a winning purpose in a win-oriented culture). Must we buy that ethic to be funded?

In 1981, the government of the Northwest Territories agreed to fully fund the games, but, in the process, “informally encouraged the organizers to structure the Games more in keeping with a eurocanadian-derived, meritocratic style of sport,” Paraschak writes. For example, the government suggested formal start times for events, in keeping with the modern sports culture of having lots of spectators come to watch athletes at given times. Previously, the Northern Games were structured to encourage people to participate whenever they happened to show up.

The Northern Games Association’s plea to the Canadian government brings up an interesting question. How do you define a sport? Is it a universal concept?

Modern, international sports culture, including the Olympic Games, emphasize winning and record-setting. But not all traditions think about sports in the same way, anthropologists Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell write in the Annual Review of Anthropology. For example, as anthropologist George Mentoreexplains, the point of archery displays among the Waiwai people of Guyana and Brazil is to affirm their vision of masculinity. And in Papua New Guinea, Gahuku-Gama tribes play rugby instead of feuding, and matches end when the elders declare a tie.

The Olympics Games are theirown unique cultural phenomenon, with their own positives — the specter of winning and losing is part of their fun — and negatives. And while they represent a moment in which diverse nations agree to follow certain rules and strive for certain goals, there’s an even greater diversity of ideas out there about the fundamental purpose of sports.