Usually, Elad Strohmayer wears a suit and tie to work in his role as deputy consul general for the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia. This week he traded the business attire for a wet suit and competed as a sailor at the ninth Gay Games in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.
“I’m here with two hats,” he said. “I came to participate as an openly gay man and a diplomat and to represent Israel.”
When Strohmayer, who grew up sailing in his hometown of Bat Yam, spoke to Haaretz, he was the frontrunner in his competition with three races to go. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” about his chances for taking the gold.
Strohmayer is one of six Israeli athletes competing in the Gay Games, one of the biggest LGBT sporting events in the world. About 9,000 participants from more than 50 countries have descended on these modest Midwest hubs to compete in everything from swimming and running to ballroom dancing and darts.
In addition to the athletes, six entertainers round out the Israeli delegation. Together they marched between rainbow and Israeli flags at the opening ceremony on Saturday at the home of LeBron James’ — and new Israeli coach David Blatt’s — Cleveland Cavaliers. Just as with the mainstream Olympics, the Gay Games take place every four years.
Unlike the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where Israeli athletes failed to win a medal, Israelis in Ohio have made their way to the podium. Midway through the games, the list is long.
Swimmer Yakir Malul has grabbed the silver in three swimming events, Sagi Krispin has taken third in the 50-meter breaststroke, Barak Gershon has won the gold in the sprint triathlon, Daniel David Shalibo has earned a space on the podium for the two-mile open-water swim, Chani Carmel has won the 10k run in her age group, and Aviv Collen has captured second place in the men's 5k run.
Usually Shalibo sprints back and forth between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, delivering killer workouts to small groups as a trainer. On Sunday he was sprinting across Lake Erie. But he missed the yellow buoy that marked the halfway point and ended up swimming 200 meters further than everyone else.
Still, he took home the bronze. For Shalibo, a professional athlete who had never taken part in an LGBT competition, the Gay Games are “a nice opportunity to represent Israel in a sport event.”
Embraced by a ‘nice Jewish family’
The Israeli delegation also received a warm embrace from the Cleveland Jewish community. More than 180 people attended an event at the Mandel Jewish Community Center to welcome the athletes. They paid tribute to David Berger, one of the Israeli Olympians slain in Munich in 1972, before attending a reception at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. For Shalibo, the high hospitality has been a pleasant surprise.
“They really make us feel like home,” he said, adding that “to come to a place that’s not a Jewish country, but to see the Jewish community so developed … it was very nice.”
The effort to have an Israeli presence at the games began a year and a half ago when Gay Games organizers reached out to local communities. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland agreed to sponsor the event, and the consulate in Philadelphia jumped on board.
“It’s important that we have a significant Israeli delegation because it’s an international event and it’s important for us to showcase gay rights in Israel,” Strohmayer said.
The federation and consulate worked with Israel’s national LGBT task force, Agudah, to identify athletes and entertainers to attend. They also received support from the Foreign Ministry and Adidas in Israel, which signed on as an official sponsor. Members of Cleveland’s Jewish community opened up their homes as well.
“They’re amazing,” Shalibo said of his host family. “They take me everywhere, take care of me and make sure I get [to the events] on time.”
He initially thought staying with a family might interfere with his preparations for the races, but now he’s grateful to see the city from a local perspective and be pampered like a relative. “At the end of the day, I’m really happy they gave me a nice Jewish family,” he said.
The war back home
The athletes left for Ohio just as a cease-fire was being reached with Hamas following the nearly month-long war in Gaza. Leaving Israel at such a precarious moment was difficult for many of them; the conflict became an inevitable topic of conversation with athletes from other countries.
“Mostly they say they’re sad about the situation and ask us how we handle it and what we think about what’s going on,” Shalibo said. “I try not to talk about it a lot unless people ask me.”
And while a break from the sirens and the anxiety of escalation sounds nice in theory, Shalibo found that wasn’t the case. “People say it’s a perfect time to leave but I feel the opposite,” he said. “It’s my country and I want to be there.”
For Strohmayer, the celebratory nature of the games allowed him to connect with other delegates on a personal level, beyond the faceless screaming about Gaza on social media. As is intended for the mainstream Olympics, politics are largely put aside at the Gay Games.
“When we were about to march, we were afraid that people would boo,” Strohmayer admitted. Instead, the blue and white were ushered in with cheers.
And Tel Aviv’s reputation as an emerging international gay destination has been a frequent conversation starter, he said. Just as Strohmayer, sans suit and tie, was able to show a different side of his personality, so too was Israel able to shed the shadow of war and put forth a different side of itself at the Gay Games, even if only for a week.
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