Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Jock Talk:
Athletes vent frustration over EuroGames track and field

Less than a week before the opening of the EuroGames in Stockholm, Sweden, track and field organizers released their meet's timetable and announced their age divisions. That triggered a frenzied exchange of messages on social media that pit the joy of competing with fellow LGBT athletes from around the world against anguish over unexpected decisions, collapsed age divisions, and unexpected schedule conflicts. Taken together, they provide a capsule look at the challenges and rewards in trying to pull together LGBT recreational athletes in a friendly but intensely contested competition.

The five-day, 30-sport EuroGames opened Wednesday, August 5 and end Sunday, August 9. The three-day track and field competition at Stockholms Olympiastadion, site of the 1912 Summer Olympics, will be held August 6-8. Although the EuroGames have been planned for years, the schedule for track and field was not released until Friday, July 31 via a dedicated Facebook page. By then, many participants were already boarding flights to Sweden and were frustrated about the lack of information. Many of them became downright furious when they got off their planes and read the compressed schedule, which makes it impossible for many runners to compete in multiple events they had planned on, and which lumps competitors together in 10-year age groups instead of the far more common five-year age brackets.

Many runners compete in masters competitions sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federation. In the IAAF, age groups are divided by five-year increments. Runners said they feared the EuroGames' decision to use 10-year age brackets would invalidate their IAAF results.

"Regarding the five- vs. 10-year divisions, this was a decision made from the number of participants as well as registrations for each division with the whole track and field championship," Jakob Jansson, president of the Stockholm EuroGames told the Bay Area Reporter . "We have also had some extra discussions after feedback, which always arrives after any decision for such a massive event as EuroGames, and still believe that this is the best of solutions. It will be more of a competition with more complete divisions/sets/races. This was decided together with both the organizing club as well as our own organization and the local LGBTQ track and field club, the Stockholm Snipers."

On Sunday, August 2, organizers posted on the event's Facebook page, "The number of participants plus registrations for each division motivates the organization decision. We truly believe this will make the championship a great one and hope your time in Stockholm will be unforgettable. We apologize for any inconvenience due to unclear information or statements in registration information regarding this matter and recognize frustration due to the same."

Many competitors, however, remained angered by the age-group decision.

"This does not fit with the international rules of masters racing," London competitor Michael Burslem wrote on Facebook. "The competition is better served having athletes of the same five-year age bands. Have you considered that in some events the height of hurdles or weight of implements is different within your 10-year age bands? How can you say it is a fair competition? Are you making the older athletes use the higher or heavier equipment? Or do you make the younger ones use the lower or lighter ones? This means these races and events will not be verified by IAAF for ranking purposes. It surely adds no extra burden to the organizers and should not result in any more races, just fair ones. I, and I am sure others, are happy to help a day early to re-draw heats and finals to make this happen. The number of participants should not affect what the age groups are. I, and many others competing, have trained hard, this is our pinnacle event this summer. How about being fair to the athletes? I am sorry, I appreciate you are all working hard organizing a multi (discipline) event, but the event is for us the athletes. Surely we should be the priority."

And Burslem wasn't done.

"Sorry organizers, you are missing the point," he wrote. "You advertised the event as following the IAAF rules and you are not following them. Yes, combine some distance events with a number of age groups to ease timetabling, but not for medals. That is unfair! You are in some events depriving an athlete of a final by combining these age groups. Again, not fair. You announce this five days prior to competition. Again, not fair."

"Money back please," Swedish competitor Jorgen Wehmonen wrote.

"The organizers are showing great disrespect to the athletes," Sylvain Treil of France wrote. "This is definitely not gonna be fun games."

Tina Bergman of Seattle is one of about 500 Americans going.

"Really, EuroGames?" Bergman wrote. "Follow the international standard, please. That was certainly expected by athletes when registering."

One competitor from France criticized the entire EuroGames operation, and his observations illuminate the fundamental challenges of hosting quality LGBT participatory sports.

"Likely the worst EuroGames in terms of adequate design, public relations, marketing and promotion, and, most importantly, community participation," Robert Jolly wrote. "All that aside, they managed to market themselves to target upper-middle class North Americans, Western and Northern Europeans, while there will be very few South and East Europeans participating – many countries none, so it is a setback for European participation. These are the first EuroGames where there is no hosted housing – the most important instrument of supporting less wealthy participants, but also an opportunity to experience the hospitality of the local community. This EuroGames 2015 will be an example on what can go wrong when host cities are not represented by enthusiastic and strong community with LGBTIQ sport organizers, but rather a few marginal individuals and the local tourist board."

Athletes' frustration

So, this isn't merely a handful of complaints from a few spoiled athletes who are upset because they are not getting exactly the opportunity they want to win a handful of medals. These are the disappointments and frustrations of athletes who really are just that – athletes – in a sports world that is all too hostile to women, persons of color, queer folk, and low-income individuals. Athletes who want to see a diversity of fellow athletes who want them to have a chance to excel in a quality event.

Former Stanford graduate student Giampiero Mancinelli of France hopes to compete in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints, as well as the long jump, triple jump, pole vault, hammer throw, shot put, discus, javelin, and two relays. He wrote about why LGBT events need to go the extra mile to ensure they are more inclusive and more forgiving in their standards than mainstream events.

"Many of us started doing track late, for reasons of fear of being ridiculed, homophobia, not feeling adequate, laziness – whatever," Mancinelli wrote. "I started at 33, though I wanted to start since I was 6. Most of my fellow team members are starting now because I am there. They are from 19 to 55. Ninety-five percent are starting now! This is not unusual. Hence I think that the Red Book of the Gay Games is correct in having an extra 30-34 year-old group, and those rules were put there for a reason."

Mancinelli said he had contacted the co-presidents of the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation as well as a EuroGames committee member, trying to get the track and field decisions changed.

"Stockholm has been a wall, in spite of complaints from Sweden to Australia," he told me. "It's been utterly frustrating. I am not sure they even have the power to change this. We'll know soon enough."