Around 10,000 gay and lesbian athletes from around the globe are expected to descend on the western German city of Cologne tomorrow to participate in the international Gay Games.
Entrants from more than 70 countries are due to take part in an eclectic mix of events including football, transgender ballroom dancing and cheerleading. A cultural programme includes art exhibitions, choir concerts and film screenings.
Many of the participants have adopted false identities because of fears that they will be persecuted on their return home.
“We want to demonstrate that the exclusion of gays and lesbians, especially in the sporting world, has to end,” said Thorsten Moeck, of the organisation committee.
“Among the represented countries are plenty in which it’s still an absolute taboo to out yourself.”
While most participants come from Germany and the US, the list of countries represented will also include Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Zimbabwe.
Moeck said for many, including Mexico’s gay soccer team, whose identities have been deliberately kept secret, it would be a “unique opportunity” to be surrounded by fellow gays and lesbians.
Eastern European sportsmen and women, from countries where discrimination is more or less systematic, have this year been invited to the event for free.
The Gay Games first started in San Francisco in 1982 and takes place every four years. Its founding father was the openly gay decathlete Tom Waddell, who died of Aids in 1987.
This year’s host city is home to Europe’s largest gay and lesbian sport club, SC Janus.
The Australian Olympic gymnast Matthew Mitcham, who won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and is one of the few major athletes to have ever come out, will open the event.
“This event brings gay and lesbian life onto the soccer pitch, the athletics track and into the swimming pool,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for all gays and lesbians to show the world that as a community we’re not a bunch of stereotypes.”
The event has been overshadowed by events at last week’s Love Parade festival, in the nearby city of Duisburg, in which 21 people were trampled to death and which has led to calls for tighter safety procedures at large-scale events in Germany.
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