Sporting events are always worth watching for the spectacle of perfected bodies applying their particular levels of muscular development to a range of very narrow, specific tasks. This voyeuristic pleasure is available to audiences of all sexualities.
But there is something distinctly queer about the Olympic Games. Even before the first crack of a starting pistol, recent games organisers all seem to have been caught up in a frenzy of aesthetic self-doubt that resonates loudly in the queer consciousness.
I think the first such high (or low) point occurred at the opening of the Los Angeles games, on July 28, 1984, when eighty-four men in white top hat and tails played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on eighty-four grand pianos while eighty-four women stood around doing nothing in particular. The connection with sport was zero. Where previous games had been content with mass displays of folk dancing in traditional costume, from now on spectacle seemed to be all that mattered.
The concept of the games had been revived in 1896, in Athens, by Pierre de Coubertin. Ancient sporting competitions were interestingly different from what we are used to now. During the games at Megara, boys took part in kissing matches (with each other, of course) while in Sparta they competed to endure more and more extreme floggings. There were no teams: ancient Greek athletes competed only for individual glory. The modern games were conjured out of an idealistic mood of nostalgia for an age when physical and mental development were not considered incompatible.
What can we do, legitimately, with the knowledge that Pierre de Coubertin was homosexual? Like many privileged men of that era, gay or straight – men educated in the classics at single-sex schools and universities, who spent their lives in male-only professional and social institutions – he was misogynistic. He said that ‘a female Olympiad is unthinkable. It would be impractical, ugly and wrong.’ He had clearly not imagined the refined delights of synchronised swimming or beach volleyball.
In 1982, a more inclusive queerness was in play when the Gay Games were founded by the Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell. The American Olympic Committee refused to allow the use of the word ‘Olympics’ in connection with such a deviation from its own narrowly defined ethos of nationalistic diversities. Undaunted, 1,300 men and women took part in a festival of sports without the O-word and the Rings. The 2010 Gay Games in Cologne had some 10,000 participants from more than 70 nations.
My favourite queer Olympic event happened on the morning of October 1, 2000 at the bizarre closing ceremony of the Sydney games, when one of the most macho cultures in the world celebrated one of the most macho events in the world with a parade of drag queens representing the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and a performance by Kylie Minogue of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’.
What these performances had to with sport is anybody’s business. But they certainly seemed, even in the dying hour of the games, to be welcoming a particular audience who might previously have felt left out.
So it is in the spirit of Sydney that I shall be watching the opening ceremony of London 2012 tonight. Along with many queer viewers, I’ll be Camp-spotting, looking out for moments of paradoxical queerness in the midst of the conformism of the sports.
Professor of Gay & Lesbian Studies
School of Arts and Humanities