Why can't the Gay Games be the Gay Olympics?

Daniel Bell 

Original (C) August, 1998. Updated November 2002; February 2003; April 2003

International Games Archive (C) 1998-2003

The Gay Games in Sydney this past year re-opened the quadrennial question, "why can’t the Gay Games be the Gay Olympics?"

When the Gay Games began in 1982 the USOC asked the organizers to refrain from using the word "Olympic" in the title.  Since that time, organizers, promoters and participants in the games, in the face of overwhelming evidence, have attempted to convince the general public that the Gay Games were being discriminated against as the only games ever to have the USOC or IOC request not to use the word Olympic to describe their events.

An examination of the historical record proves quite conclusively that this is not the case.

The IOC has since its beginnings held steadfast in its opinion that the word Olympic be used for the Olympic Games alone, the Special Olympics being the one exception.

As far back as 1910, Pierre de Coubertin protested the use of the name Juegos Olimpicos del Centenario (Centennial Olympic Games) for a competition in Buenos Aires organized by the sports authorities in Argentina. Coubertin was said to be infuriated by the matter and used the infraction to make an example to others that the matter would be treated seriously. The Argentine representative to the IOC was expelled from the IOC.

The issue shows up again in IOC minutes in 1913, when the IOC was informed that its American members had successfully protested the use of the title "American Olympic Games" for a Chicago track meet. 

That same year Japan, China and the Philippines established a regional games which were called the "First Asian Olympic Games". The name was changed to the Far East Championships for all subsequent editions.

In 1919 the IOC protested the use of the name "Olympiade Catalan" for a competition in Barcelona. Jeux Catalan was substituted. 

Also in 1919, IOC President Pierre de Coubertin wrote a letter of protest to the organizers of the Inter-Allied Games that were to be held in Paris that year.  De Coubertin was concerned that the word Olympic was being used in various newspapers to describe the competitions. Elwood Brown of the YMCA, who was helping to organize the games, replied to de Coubertin. "Certain newspaper reports have included the term 'Olympic' as an explanatory term. This is done, I observe, quite commonly everywhere. The word 'Olympic' has come to mean, in the newspaper world, any great international athletic meeting" (to the consternation of the IOC). Brown went on to explain that the organizers of the games were not using the word Olympic in any official capacity.  Brown and de Coubertin later went on to work together in the next decade establishing regional games.

When Alice Milliat, the founder of the Federation Sportive Feminine International, wanted to establish events for women in 1922, she called her games the Jeux Olympiques Feminins. Pierre de Coubertin and the IAAF took notice, and a compromise of sorts was agreed to. The FSFI would drop the use of the word Olympic, and the IOC would admit women into its games.

In 1923, Frenchman Jean Petitjean was promoting his first games for university students as the University Olympic Games. De Coubertin again protested and convinced him to change the name. The International University Games were established, and are know known around the world as the World University Games, World Student Games or Universiade.

In 1924, the organizers of the first World Games for the Deaf wanted to call their games the Deaf Olympics. This was disallowed.

The minutes of the IOC session in Lisbon in 1926 report several other reports of the use of the term olympic and olympiad such as the "workers olympiads" to the consternation of the IOC.

In 1928 the IOC quashed altogether a competition that was to be called the "Hispo-American Olympiade", and in 1931 told the Balkan nations to change their event from the "Balkaniade" to the Balkan Games. 

Despite the constant efforts, the IOC could not curtail the use of the word Olympic. The New York Times consistently referred to the 1930 Central American Games as the Central American Olympics, or even the Havana Olympics. There is no record of a specific IOC protest. 

In 1937, the IOC took umbrage with the Olympic Bridge Club and tournament in New York, and protested again the use of the word for the "Workers Olympiad" in Antwerp.

In 1947 the IOC president reported that the International Chess Federation had agreed to stop using the term Olympiad. This didn't last however. In 1950 the chess players once again called their tournament, "Olympiad of Chess," and the IOC complained again. A the end of the same decade, in the February 15, 1959, edition of the Olympic Bulletin, the Chess Federation was denounced for its "pompously entitled Chess Olympiad." The Bulletin noted that the IOC had not been successful on this occasion, and "as far as any candidature of the chess federation as an 'Olympic sport' is concerned, the result would be a check and checkmate at that."

Interestingly enough, the official IOC site www.olympic.org, in November 2000 proudly heralded the organization of the 34th Chess Olympiad by the Turkish National Olympic Committee. Has the IOC gone soft?

In November 1949, the IOC noted some successes on the Olympic name front. A "Youth Olympiad" in Denmark was notified ahead of the event and made to change its name, as was a Military Olympic Games in France, which became, "International Military Championship."  

Other issues were still in dispute. The Deaf Games forgot their agreement of 1924 and called their 1949 games, "Olympic Games of the Silent." This was only discovered after the conclusion of the games, but the IOC resolved to make certain it would not happen again.

In 1949 and1950, an Austrian group was planning a "Musical Olympiad" to be held each year in Salzburg.  The Austrian representative to the IOC was contacted and was asked by the IOC to "have this grotesque title cancelled." The IOC decided to release a statement reading that the Austrians had no right to use the term Olympiad and "evidently do not know the real meaning of it."  In December 1952, organizers and the IOC signed an agreement that the name would be changed to "The International Delphic Games."

Another infraction was the use of the term "Olympic Games for Israel" in the press to describe the Maccabiah Games of 1950.

The 1951 Pan-American Games, a games given "patronage" by the IOC, caused an uproar over the use of the Olympic flame and Olympic oath which were only supposed to be used at the Olympic Games. Organizers assured the IOC that the oath had been adapted and the flame had been lit at the Acropolis, not Olympia, and was not the "holy flame from Olympia."

Also in 1951, IOC President Avery Brundage wrote a letter to the organizers of the Bolivarian Games in Venezuela complaining that the games were being referred to as the "Bolivarian Olympics." "Of course this is all wrong," wrote an annoyed Brundage. "There is only one Olympic Games." 

The United States Olympic Committee, in January of 1951, was reported to be taking legal action in "more than 200 serious cases where Olympic symbols are being used for commercial purposes."  

India's IOC member G. D. Sondhi had to intervene in several local competitions that were using the word Olympic that same year.

In September 1952, the IOC reported on rules that were being considered for "Regional Games."  Rule # 10 read, "The words "Olympic" and "Olympiad", the five rings and the Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" must not be used in any manner in connection with Regional Games. The Olympic flag may be used only in one place and that is in the stadium on a flag pole alongside the center pole bearing the flag of the games."

The level of exasperation on the part of the IOC seemed to reach new heights in 1953. Despite its best efforts, the IOC seemed to be fighting a losing battle. Olympic Review reported, "Two cases have just been reported to us which strike us as stupidity raised to the highest pitch on the part of the organizers. At Zurich, a contest has just taken place called, 'A chewing-gum Olympiad for Children.'" "A contest for a "Boogie-Woogie Olympiad" took place, last February in Hamburg. The finals are to be held in Switzerland..... where the Olympic Committee of that nation is too look out for squalls!" What is not done for the sake of publicity and money!" "It is sad to see organizers showing such lack of discrimination."   

Several instances of abuse relating to postage stamps were reported in the November 1958 and May 1959 issues of Olympic Review.  The IOC noted that stamps issued by Indonesia for the 1951 Asian Games made unauthorized use of the Olympic Rings and contained the word "Olympiade."   Stamps from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Egypt were also cited for the same sort of violations, utilizing the Olympic Rings in association with National Games and the Mediterranean Games.

The 1958 World Biathlon Championships in Austria were also noted in Olympic Review as making unauthorized use of the Olympic Rings and name Olympic.

South Africa held a "Frogs' Olympic Games" in Johannesburg in 1958, and the "Olympiad of Choral Societies" in Paris had to be postponed, to the satisfaction of the IOC.  "Is all this due to lack of imagination, or sheer stupidity?" asked Olympic Review.

In 1970, the IOC still had concerns to the point of issuing a circular letter to the NOCs to protect the Olympic Flag, rings and Olympic name, going so far as to say that the NOCs could use the Olympic rings only in black and white. The symbol of the Olympic rings in Color could only be used by the IOC. (minutes of the IOC session, Amsterdam 1970)

In late 1976 the IOC wrote to the Stoke Mandeville Games organizers, who had called their games in 1976 in Toronto the "TorontOlympiad" and "Olympics for the Disabled."  With the IOC's objection, the Stoke Mandeville organizers agreed to abide by the wishes of the IOC.

For several editions the movement had used in various forms, "Olympics for the Paralyzed" and "Olympics for the Disabled." in describing the events that would eventually become the Paralympic Games. The para- according to the organizers at the time coming from the beginning of the word paralyzed, not para-, as in "parallel to the Olympics", as a common modern myth purports. The first several editions of these games were exclusively for paralyzed athletes. The IOC of course objected, and the word Paralympic (used in some contexts as far back as 1951), was agreed upon in February of 1985, with the Paralympic movement agreeing never to use the word Olympic to describe its events.

The first "Transplant Olympics," organized by British transplant surgeon Maurice Slapak, were held in Portsmouth, England in 1978. Approximately 100 organ ransplant recipients, representing over a dozen countries, gathered in Olympic fashion. In subsequent years, the Transplant Olympics were renamed the World Transplant Games.

The Huntsman World Senior Games were inaugurated in 1987 as the World Senior Olympics, but were made to change their name to the World Senior Games the following year.

Various Police and Fire Olympics have been asked to refrain from using the word Olympic to describe their events.

Opponents claim that the USOC allows events such as the "Rat Olympics", "Beer Olympics" or "Tank Olympics" to be held uncontested. Generally the USOC and IOC are more concerned with international multi-sport competitions, that would be confused with the Olympic Games. However, in February 2003, the USOC asked Nebraska Wesleyan University to refrain from using the name Olympic for their annual "Rat Olympics" which had been held 23 years in succession. 

So what about the Special Olympics? The Special Olympics were begun by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968. The use of the word Olympic by her organization was addressed by the USOC in 1971. At that time the USOC gave its approval for the Special Olympics to be the exception to the rule and the only organization outside the Olympic movement with permission to use the word Olympic. This permission would be expanded in 1988 when the IOC recognized and endorsed the Special Olympics movement.

The case involving the Gay Games (International Olympic Committee vs. San Francisco Arts and Athletics, 781 F. 2d 733), was decided in January of 1986, with the courts deciding that there would be confusion and the "Gay Olympics" would have to use another name.

In this context the lawsuit between the USOC and the Gay Games over the use of the term "Gay Olympics" in the early 80s becomes just one in a very long list of instances in which the Olympic movement has asked organizations to reserve the use of the word Olympic for the Olympic Games. It becomes increasingly difficult, given the facts, to construct a rational argument to the contrary.