Tom Daley, the British diver who won a bronze medal in the London Olympics, recently came out as bisexual, after he became involved in a serious relationship with a man. The simple, calm way in which he divulged the information gives rise to questions of why an athlete coming out of the closet is supposed to be such a momentous occurrence – and whether or not that information has any importance in our enlightened, modern world.
Next Friday, on December 13, the Sporteque compound in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park will host an event that should make it easier for Israel’s gay and lesbian community to get in touch with the country's athletic community. Early that morning, the GayOlmpic event will begin, featuring a host of competitions in various sports, meant primarily for the gay community. The event’s organizers are not trying to pull anyone out of the closet by force or squeeze heartfelt confessions out of them – they only wish to afford the opportunity to compete in a supportive environment, and to encourage athletics and healthy living among the gay and lesbian community. Who knows? Perhaps some young talents that had previously flown under the radar will be discovered.
“Unfortunately, there are many soccer players, basketball players and other athletes in Israel who remain in the closet,” says Hofit Manishevitze, one of the event's organizers. “I don’t personally know of any famous Israeli athletes who are gay or lesbian, but I’m sure they’re out there. It’s hard to be a proud gay athlete, and the goal is to a create a place that is supportive and accepting for any members of the gay and lesbian community, where they can enjoy sport without fear of criticism.”
The event, organized by the organization “Six Colors” with support from the Culture and Sports Ministry, will include 5- and 10-kilometer running competitions as well as soccer, basketball, volleyball and table tennis tournaments. Alongside the competition, the event will feature other attractions such as yoga, zumba and aerobics classes, a DJ and dance class, and talks on health and nutrition.
Members of the gay and lesbian community are not content with just parades or mass gatherings, but rather want to create a joint athletic platform to participate in growing trends in Israel and around the world.
“We can find lots of strange reasons to meet, but here the emphasis is on athletics and healthy living,” says Asaf Zagrizak, the event's public relations officer. “Athletics and healthy living is a hot topic among the public, so it’s no surprise that it’s important to the gay and lesbian community as well. There's a lot of awareness on these subjects, backed by surveys carried out by companies that target this community through advertising.”
Members of the gay and lesbian community are the event’s target audience, but the organizers have made it clear that it is open to everyone, including participation in the competitions. “I’m not checking to see if anyone has a membership card to the atraf club [a dating website popular with the gay community],” jokes Zagrizak. “This time, they can all leave the pink patches at home. Everyone will dress how they want, whether they’re in tight shirts or shirts they got from the army.”
Manishevitze adds: “There’s no problem with straight people competing or even winning, as long as they’re tolerant, accepting and pleasant. As far as we’re concerned, every person who shows up is a victory.”
The event's organizers are still struggling to decide whether men and women should compete together or separately, though in each sport there will be high professional standards as well as cash prizes. “I’ve yet to see an athletic department meant just for gays,” says Zagrizak. “Personally though, I try to shy away from bodybuilding - you don’t need to be built well to be a good person. There’s no weight-lifting competition here – we’re not trying to produce models at this event.”
While the crowds and competitions will be strictly sportsmanlike, a slightly different touch will definitely be felt – there will be a drag queen at the starting line and a run in high-heeled shoes is also on the list of events. “There will be lots of things that symbolize the community,” says Manishevitze. “Lots of flags, cool music, but most importantly an open and accepting environment, which is all the community offers and asks for.”
Manishevitze represents the many volunteers working hard to make this lofty goal a reality. Participation fees are also very low – NIS 10 for the event and NIS 29 to participate in one of the runs – especially when compared to the exorbitant sums demanded of participants in popular events like the Nike night run in Tel Aviv. “This is a foundation, and not a company chasing after profits,” says Manishevitze. “This is a social, educational event.”
Manishevitze and the other staffers currently expect between 400 and 500 participants to turn up. It seems that there won’t be any famous athletes there, but Tel Aviv’s gay soccer team is expected to show up, as is a women’s basketball team from Haifa. Perhaps at this event, far from the mainstream spotlights, Israeli athletics will discover its own Tom Daley. And even if achievements like his are still far off, at least Israeli athletics will have gained more tolerance and openness.