By Sam Baltrusis
There’s more than mere sour grapes in Boston’s bitter disappointment in losing to Cleveland in its bid to host Gay Games 2014
When a crew of local representatives made the trek to Cologne, Germany last September to convince the Federation of Gay Games that Boston was the ideal place to host the ultimate LGBT sporting event in 2014, they thought the odds were in their favor.
Boston—when compared to its bid competitors Washington D.C. and Cleveland, Ohio—had it all. The athletic venues and cultural institutions were top-notch and easily accessible to the thousands of international athletes slotted to compete in 2014 and, besides, it was home of the marriage equality struggle in the United States.
Gay Games 2014 in Boston? It was a no-brainer.
“What the Federation presented to us is that they wanted to grow and build their future and host the Gay Games in a strong city,” says Linda DeMarco, president of Boston Pride and one of the many volunteers who spearheaded Team Boston’s bid for the Gay Games. “I don’t think any of us involved in the process thought that Cleveland was part of the scenario.”
When bid co-chair DeMarco and Team Boston learned that Cleveland was selected as the host city of the 2014 Gay Games—also outbidding Washington D.C.—they were shocked.
“At the end of the process, both D.C. and Boston said to each other that we thought we would lose to you,” remarks sports committee member Marc Davino, adding that it was Boston’s big-city attributes with its small-city charm that the group thought would win over the Federation.
Sour grapes? Bad call? Favoritism? Foul play?
One lingering question continues to haunt the volunteers and supporters of Boston’s bid for the Gay Games months after that emotional announcement on Tuesday, September 29 in Cologne: What went wrong?
An Uneven Playing Field?
The Federation of Gay Games (FGG) is the organization that protects and cultivates the Gay Games’ activities and brand since the first games were held in 1982 in San Francisco. The FGG offered clear guidelines for potential host cities, primarily in rules outlined in what is called The Red Book.
After submitting official proposals to the FGG, potential host cities were visited by a site selection committee of three, who made their own on-the-ground assessment. They, in turn, reported back to a group of representatives of sports organizations from around the world, who made the final selection.
A series of interviews and an analysis of documents acquired by Boston Spirit, including the site selection committee’s final recommendation report, show that while Boston adhered closely to the guidelines, Cleveland not only often flouted the rules, but the site selection committee often rewarded the host city for doing so, and that final voting representatives weren’t made aware of critical aspects of proposals or process.
“We thought we were going into a fair playing field, but unfortunately it was not,” says Team Boston committee member Marc Davino.
One area of discrepancy involved the amount of sports that the FGG wanted a host city to offer. The Red Book allowed for a limit of 28 sports. Why the cap? Team Boston was told that the FGG had previously had problems with overreach in the past, leading many past Gay Games to lose money. So, although Boston planners could have and would have happily prepped for more, they played by the rules and submitted plans for 28.
Cleveland? Their team proposed 40 sports, which automatically catapulted them into first place on the venue scorecard. The eventual host city snagged bonus points on martial arts, power lifting, racquet ball and rodeo, while Boston earned zeros in those events even though they could have easily found a hosting venue. The point spread? Boston earned 89, Washington D.C. 115 and Cleveland 123.
Darl Schaaff, the Federation’s top judge and officer of the organization’s site selection committee for the past six years, insists that Cleveland’s 12 additional sports were disallowed, even though the final bid scorecard distributed to voting delegates doesn’t reflect the claim. “We require the same number of sports so we can compare the bids,” Schaaff tells Boston Spirit. “In fact, after the award of a bid we allow the host to present additional sports for consideration. The Cleveland number was disallowed, and we objectively critiqued the same number and same type of sports for all three bids.”
The guidelines also pushed cities to host events within a 15-minute radius, accessible by public transportation. Boston excelled in accomplishing this feat. Davino says that the FGG made it clear that distance was a priority. “One of the key issues was proximity of venues,” insists Davino. “Every sport [in Boston], including golf, was within 15 minutes away.” In contrast Cleveland’s golfing venue, in Akron, is over 45 miles away. Despite the distance, the site selection committee awarded the venue a score of “far beyond expectations.”
Many other Cleveland venues fell outside the limit, and yet the host city did not seem to be penalized. Boston received a handful of “below expectations” marks, without explanation, regarding specific venues in a slew of sports, ranging from body building to softball. During the site visit, Boston’s crew of volunteers offered viable alternatives on the spot once they realized it was an issue. But the final report on Boston venues retained its initial sub-par marks while noting that “alternative sites were presented that would meet or exceed.”
In contrast, Cleveland’s site inspection sounded too good to be true. All of the venues inspected for the 40 sports were given either “exceeded” or “far exceeded expectations” in the bid report. Even Vince Micone, who helped spearhead D.C.’s bid and served as the Chair of the Metropolitan Washington Gaymes conceded Boston’s success in venue selection. “Hats off to Boston. All of your venues were condensely located in an area that was easy to access. One of the strengths that we saw in Boston was that the venue locations were fantastic. You have a great gift with all of the universities and facilities that are located in a condensed part of town.”
Schaaff, one of the Federation’s site officers who visited each city, argues that all three bidders had top-notch venues. “Boston certainly has some amazing venues with the major universities, public venues and stadiums. But so did Washington, D.C. and Cleveland,” he shoots back.
Another point of contention was in the area of management. “When we got the RFP, it was clear that we needed sports people to be involved,” DeMarco says. “We knew that Boston had a strong contingency and found the leaders in each sport. Our volunteers in Boston were very strong and we knew we had to use their experience to help write this bid in the right way.”
In the final report, the three site judges made a general declaration that, “at the time of the inspections, [Boston’s] sports coordinators had not been identified for many sports and/or cultural venues.” But the report offered no details.
Team Boston disputes that finding. Boston’s bid co-chair Linda DeMarco insists that the group assembled some of the city’s top athletes and sports managers, many of whom who have been long-time supporters of the Gay Games. Team Boston member Steve Harrington says that when the site selection committee arrived in Boston only two or three coordinators had not been identified. Is that what the judges mean by “many”? asks Harrington.
In comparison, Schaaff tells Boston Spirit that Cleveland and D.C. also excelled with volunteers. “Boston had a truly amazing team of dedicated volunteers who had put together a strong bid package, and they were in great company on all of that. For this bidding cycle, both Washington and Cleveland had their organizations working and had been actively preparing for well over a year,” he says.
Another area of concern was financing. The Gay Games have been beset by funding issues for years. It is one of several reasons that Outgames split from the Federation of Gay Games five years ago to offer its competing international LGBT sports competitions, held in Montreal in 2006 and Cologne last year. The FGG made it clear that it was looking for long-term sponsorships that would put the Games on continuing financial stability. Team Boston’s leaders used their prowess to line up funding interest and sponsorship arrangements with a number of large corporations. In fact, the final selection committee report boasts that “Boston has budgeted nearly one million dollars more in contributed income than the other two bidding organizations.” DeMarco pointed out that many of the international and national companies were not interested in one-time funding, but in long-term partnerships, exactly what the FGG said it was looking for. In the end, the site selection became more impressed in Cleveland with pledges and commitments of $525,000, so far, from the community, including actual checks “for $50,000 each” from “local business owners” presented to the judges during their visit.
“The organizing committee and the Federation were very clear in what they wanted in the bid. We [Boston] hit the mark on all aspects,” emotes Sylvain Bruni, Team Boston’s technology co-chair.
“They were also clear with what they didn’t want in a bid and those negatives seem to have been rewarded [for Cleveland],” adds sports committee member Harrington.
Behind Closed Doors
The final decision on which city would host the 2014 Gay Games was not in the hands of the site selection committee. That fell to 52 delegates, who represented a plethora of international sports organizations. But the only information provided to them for making the decision came from 45-minute presentations by each host city, the site selection committee’s written report, and a closed door session with the site selection committee.
Bidding city representatives were told that a 45-minute presentation time limit would be strictly adhered to. So the 14 Team Boston members rehearsed over and over, finessing, cutting, and reworking material with its professional presenters—including Kenneth J. Brissette, Chief Operating Officer for the Boston Office of Travel and Tourism, Wendell K. Chestnut, Senior Vice President for Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America, and Linda DeMarco, President of Boston Pride Committee—until the presentation fit in the time allotted and not a second more. Those present say that Cleveland’s report went much longer.
In a closed-door meeting in Cologne, representatives from LGBT sports organizations from around the world received the final presentation and report from the site selection committee. A few hours later, the delegates voted in favor of Cleveland.
Brent Minor, a longtime supporter of the FGG and a volunteer with Team D.C., says he wasn’t surprised that Cleveland won the bid, but he was concerned with the motivation behind the decision. “What did surprise me was the notion that bringing the Gay Games to Northeast Ohio to highlight gay-rights issues seemed to play such a significant factor to many voters,” Minor argues. “Not only does it seem to unnecessarily politicize the Gay Games movement, but I believe such thinking is too limiting. The fact is, there aren’t enough Gay Games in the world to go to every place that needs enlightenment on LGBT issues.”
The only negative regarding Cleveland in the FGG’s site selection report echoes Minor’s sentiment that the decision to go with Ohio was political. “Their greatest weakness is the outdated misconceptions of the city,” the document concludes. The analysis becomes more heated when the committee begins to push the idea that the Gay Games could “challenge a number of currently held views on the GLBT community.” The report states, “Ohio is the swing vote that decides national elections in the U.S. The event would become the focus and impetus of the city, state, and surrounding states.”
In hindsight, FGG’s Schaaff says it wasn’t an easy decision to go with Cleveland, even though the outcome mimics the organization’s decision to go with Cologne in 2010, a medium-sized German city that beat out bid challengers Johannesburg and Paris. “Our job is to weigh many factors; one of them is the impact the location can have on the LGBT image and acceptance worldwide. When choosing the United States for the 2014 Games, we considered carefully this impact,” he responds.
“Remember that we had Boston, Washington D.C. and Cleveland as finalist cities. Could any of them produce the largest LGBT Sporting and Cultural event in the world? The answer is ‘yes.’ Personally, I would love to have all three produce the Gay Games, as each would bring strength to the event unique to their location and abilities,” Schaaff continues.
Apparently, the host state had a huge impact on Schaaff, who has lived in Alaska for more than three decades. Weeks after Cleveland was named the bid winner of Gay Games 2014, he reportedly bought a condo in Ohio City after he was “blown away” by Cleveland. His new digs are downstairs of an under-construction complex within the city’s old YMCA which includes a basketball court.
In response to purchasing a condo in Cleveland, Schaaff says he found the host city to be “filled with an optimism and sense of change” which motivated him to set up shop there. “I currently own five homes in various places,” he responds. “I have no intention of leaving Alaska and probably would have loved owning a condo in Boston or Washington, had the circumstances been different.”
Cleveland Shoots Back
Speaking to Boston Spirit from Cleveland were Jeff Axberg and his longtime partner—both on and off the field—W. Doug Anderson, founder and spokesperson for the Cleveland Synergy Foundation and the force behind the city’s successful bid to host the 2014 Gay Games. They said that they too were confused regarding the rules outlined in the Federation of Gay Games’s (FGG) host city bid Request for Proposal (RFP) and The Red Book. In hindsight, they believe there needs to be more transparency from the FGG about the process to make it an even playing field for future bidders looking to host the Gay Games.
“There were conflicting numbers regarding the number of sports allowed in the bid when comparing the RFP and The Red Book and it was definitely confusing at times,” says Anderson, adding that Cleveland looked at how former host cities like Chicago, Sydney and New York handled their sports lineup in the past for guidance. They also had representation at the Gay Games pre-bid meeting in Cape Town. For the record, they claimed, Boston didn’t attend the initial bid orientation in South Africa. “I truly believe that more information needs to come from the Federation to help potential cities during the bid process. In fact, we’ve opened up our arms and ideas to the Federation to help clarify the RFP process and to discuss the issues we had during the process to help future cities.”
For example, Cleveland says that they had to petition the Federation’s delegates to allow for the additional sports reflected on the venue scorecard. According to Cleveland’s reps, they didn’t flout the rules, but they did notice that other host cities have historically deviated from The Red Book, citing that Cologne has sharpshooting slotted for the Gay Games 2010, even though that sport isn’t considered a core event by the FGG.
“We tried our best to follow all of the rules and regulations, but there was some conflicting information from the Federation,” adds Axberg, offering an olive branch to Team Boston. “On a personal level, I would love for a city in North America like Boston to host the Gay Games in 2018.”
Anderson continues, “It’s important to us that we all work together. It’s hard enough for our community as is, and the Gay Games is about all of us coming together for this massive event. We’re amazed by the level of support we’ve seen since winning the Gay Games in 2014 … we even have supporters in Boston … and we believe this will be the largest LGBT event ever in the history of the state of Ohio. It’s a big deal for us.”
FGG’s Schaaff says he wasn’t surprised that Cleveland won. “You asked if I was surprised by Cleveland winning the bid,” Schaaff says. “In fact, we found their sports facilities to be world class, the bid very strong and their support team, including the city, to be one of the best we have witnessed.”
The problem, says Davino, was that FGG players weren’t sharing information properly. “This information was shared with us during the site visit and we go six weeks later in September to Cologne and the organization wasn’t strong enough to share that information to its delegates,” says Davino.
“One of the major reasons why we lost is that the way things were presented to us, and the objectives to accomplish and focus on, were completely different than how the bids were judged,” emotes Sylvain Bruni, Boston’s technology co-chair.
Harrington, a long-time Gay Games supporter who first attended the event in 1982—then called the Gay Olympics—and has gone every year since, says Team Boston received many mixed messages during the bid process.
“When you spend your money and your time to get something as wonderful as this and to see people criticizing you is difficult,” says Harrington. “What upset all of us was the inconsistency of ‘this is what we want, but this is what we’ll reward.’ Or ‘today, this is how the presentations are going to go, but tomorrow they’re going to go this way.’ In every single case, they had written the rules but refused to abide by them.”
DeMarco believes there are fundamental flaws with the entire bid process, which relies heavily on input from the Federation’s three visiting site judges, rather than on sticking to the guidelines set for each proposal.
“This is really systematic of the Federation itself,” DeMarco retorts. “They put themselves out to be an organized organization that is moving forward and growing and they wanted to have sponsorships that would stay with them and take it to the next level. We were able to do that. In the end in Cologne, all they did was step back and use us as a catalyst to go with something far less because we were a threat to them. We were too good.”
Vince Micone, who helped spearhead D.C.’s bid, echoes Team Boston’s grief after losing the 2014 Gay Games to Cleveland.
“You can’t go through a process like this and not have strong emotions,” says Micone. “In many respects, I certainly understand how the folks in Chicago felt when they lost their Olympics bid. It really is something that you commit to and you see things and observe in your mind how the opening ceremonies are going to work, how this is going to change your city and how people will be involved and how certain messages will be heard, not only in your community but around the world. That’s pretty powerful stuff.”
Micone remarks that Team D.C., which shelled out around $1 million during the bid process, is still recovering from the loss. “You need time and distance,” he adds. “When you commit the considerable amount of resources and energy that was put in by Boston, D.C. and Cleveland it can’t be anything but difficult when you’re not selected, especially when you believe you put out the winning bid.”
For Boston’s team of volunteers who first gathered in December 2008 to bring the Gay Games to New England, the heartbreak continues to resonate among its crew of sports enthusiasts.
“It’s so disheartening. I’ve put a lot of my energy and life into supporting the Gay Games for twenty years. It was hard to watch the workings of the Federation not live up to the standards one would think,” says Harrington, who tears up when talking about the loss.
“We took what a volunteer does and developed so much passion for it and to be shot down in this way is heartbreaking. We’re still emotionally distressed over this,” adds DeMarco. “We did this because it was important to our community and we know how to do it in Boston.”
DeMarco says that, after hearing of Boston’s loss, Outgames approached her about the possibility of hosting its competition in 2013, when its host city location of Antwerp was running into difficulties. Ultimately, Antwerp’s problems were resolved, and discussions with Boston were dropped. Outgames and the FGG are in discussions to merge sometime after 2014.
Harrington, who emotionally expressed the mourning felt among Team Boston, says he’s not planning on going to the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. However, he continues to believe in Gay Games founder Tom Waddell’s vision to promote the spirit of inclusion and participation, as well as the pursuit of personal growth in a sporting event.
“The philosophy and the concept of the Gay Games is a phenomenal thing,” he says, adding that his experience walking into the stadium during the 1982 games held in San Francisco was a life-changing experience. “I had just come out of the closet as an out, gay athlete and there were thousands of people cheering. Over the years, it’s been such a moving experience. But, it will take an unforeseen circumstance for me to go to Cleveland.” [x]