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Gay Games: Meet the Team LGBT athletes competing at Paris 2018

It's the world's largest sports and cultural event open to all, with Paris 2018 set to host more than 10,000 participants from 91 different countries; Sky Sports speaks to some of the delegation from Britain

Team LGBT, Out For Sport, Gay Games
Image: The UK delegation heading to the Gay Games in Paris comprises over 800 participants

Anyone is welcome to register to compete at the Gay Games - you don't have to be a member of the LGBT community to take part.

It's the most inclusive international multi-sports event in the world, with Paris 2018 - the 10th edition - beginning on Saturday evening with the opening ceremony at Stade Jean-Bouin, the home of Stade Francais.

Thereafter, over 10,000 athletes will battle it out for medals in 36 sports, each with a range of competitions, categories and disciplines that best fit the Paris Games slogan, 'All Equal'.

For those participants who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, this global get-together in the spirit of sport will strengthen their sense of community. That's sure to be felt even more strongly by those from nations where homosexuality is still illegal, as in 20 of the total 91 countries represented, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, a further 54 nations that are among the absentees at Paris 2018 similarly criminalise being LGBT - a stark reminder of the continuing need for the Games' message of unity, dating back to its first edition in San Francisco in 1982.

More than 800 people from the UK are making the short hop across the Channel to go for gold in the French capital; first, they'll be parading with a 'Team LGBT' banner at the opening ceremony.

To learn more about the Gay Games, and its ongoing relevance and purpose in a world of such fractured rights for LGBT people, depending on their geographical location, Sky Sports spoke to two officials from the Federation of Gay Games - the governing body that oversees the event's global movement - and six competitors.

Joanie Evans, co-President, Federation of Gay Games

Having been elected to her Federation position shortly before the last Gay Games, in Cleveland in 2014, Paris will mark the first Games that Joanie has helped oversee from beginning to end. "It's going to be the best Games ever," she says, with total conviction.

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Joanie Evans, Co-President, Federation of Gay Games
Image: Federation of Gay Games co-president Joanie Evans was a gold medallist in football at the Sydney Games in 2002

Joanie was a gold medallist in football at Sydney 2002, but it was her trip to New York eight years prior to that with her Hackney Women FC team-mates for her first Gay Games that stands out in her memory. "We took two teams, and it was the biggest fun ever. Coming from 'lowly' Hackney to an international event, not really knowing how big it was, and meeting so many people from around the world... it's kept me hooked on the Games all this time."

The ethos of the event remains pivotal to its success and accessibility, says Joanie. "The Gay Games is based on our principles of participation, inclusion and personal best. People don't have to qualify to be part of the Gay Games, which makes it more open. Also, we're not exclusively gay - we do accept everybody.

"We really want to encourage straight allies. That's the whole point of making things different. If a team's got one or two gay players, and their team-mates want to support them, then that team can absolutely come to the Gay Games. For example, Hackney is predominantly a lesbian team, but they want to encourage all women to play. The Games really is the friendliest and safest atmosphere that you can be within, playing your sport however you want without fear of discrimination."

Paris 2018 has enlisted high-profile ambassadors in France World Cup winner Lilian Thuram and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to add some star power to proceedings. Joanie hopes that will help bring in a younger generation, while other efforts around wider inclusion have also been made. "There's been a lot of background stuff done to encourage more women to get involved. At Cleveland, the number of female athletes was about 28%, and I think it'll be about 30% in Paris.

"We want to get more BAME people to come and participate too, particularly from the Western world. Paris is so ethnically diverse, and we've got more African athletes attending, so that should increase too."

The aim is to take as much momentum as possible into 2022 when the hosts will be Hong Kong, a Games which has potential to bring about even greater benefits for LGBT people in Asia. "What we've got from Hong Kong already is that they're so enthusiastic about hosting the Games," says Joanie. "Having the Games there will open many doors for a lot of people who are more closeted than we are here. Hopefully, it'll make a big enough statement there that it will change a lot of what happens in Hong Kong as a whole."

Adam Heathcote, Jim Hearson and Elliot Tilbey, footballers with London Titans FC

"It's going to be my first Gay Games, so getting this ticked is one off the bucket list for me," says Jim Hearson, comms officer and defender for the London Titans. The LGBT-friendly football club, formed back in 2005, competed at Cologne 2010 but weren't able to travel to Cleveland four years ago. Now they're raring to go for their Games return in Paris. "We've got a very competitive team going so we're hopeful of doing well," adds Jim.

Adam Heathcote, Jim Hearson, Elliot Tilbey, London Titans FC
Image: London Titans footballers Adam Heathcote, Jim Hearson and Elliot Tilbey will be taking part in their first Gay Games in Paris

His Titans team-mates Elliot Tilbey and Adam Heathcote are excited by the scale of the event. "Over 10,000 participants is a ridiculous number, to be honest," says Elliot. "It's such a great way of bringing people from the LGBT community all over the world together. We've made so many friends at all the other international tournaments we've been to. It's really a great celebration."

The Gay Games enjoys an older demographic than many other international sporting events; in Cleveland, most athletes were aged between 35 and 55. The Titans are among those teams that are more representative of a younger generation that's coming through. "I'd love to still be at the Gay Games in 20 years' time - if I can still play at that age!" says Adam. "It's Hong Kong next in 2022, and the line-up of future tournaments will no doubt include lots more exciting places too." Brisbane and Tel Aviv are rumoured to be considering bids for 2026, along with a more familiar gay-friendly destination for UK athletes - Brighton. The UK is yet to host the Gay Games; London was among the bidders beaten by Paris for 2018.

Tom Wohlfahrt, dancesport athlete

The Gymnase Japy, a converted covered market which dates from 1870, will be the venue for the dance competitions at Paris 2018; nearly 400 dancers will participate in various classifications, including ballroom, Latin and Argentine tango, while there will be a Para event too.

Tom Wohlfahrt, Gay Games, Paris 2018
Image: Tom Wohlfahrt will partner with his boyfriend to participate in same-sex dancesport

The competition is also combined with the World Dancesport Championships of the International Federation of Same-sex Dance Associations. Tom, who is German and lives in London, will be competing in mens' Latin with his boyfriend, Jo Baiao, who is from Portugal.

"I've been competing since I was five," says Tom. "I used to lead when I danced with women, but now that I'm dancing with Jo, I'm the follower. We've been together as boyfriends for almost three years. I'm trying to learn how to follow, so I can teach women better.

"There's a lot more freedom in dancesport than traditional ballroom dancing - not just in terms of clothing, but in movement too. You can even switch roles of leading and following within a dance.

"Jo's a professional dancer like me. Often we still find we both want to lead at the same time, so it's been interesting!"

It'll be Tom's first trip to the Gay Games, and his first time competing in a same-sex dance event too. "Dancing with a woman in mainstream dance culture, I need to be very macho - there's no vulnerability," he explains. "It's something to be explored more in sport, so I'm super excited to be competing in Paris.

"Seeing other sports will be very interesting too, and sharing that love of equality - I want to support, meet new people, and get inspired by their stories and ambition."

Team LGBT, UK athletes from Out For Sport, competing at Paris 2018 Gay Games
Image: A group of over 100 athletes from 'Team LGBT' gathered in central London on Monday evening for a photo shoot

Vicki Carter, chair of Out To Swim and co-chair of Out For Sport

"It's a little bit political, which to me seems important." Vicki is something of a GG veteran, having first competed back at the fourth Games in New York in 1994, which took place two years after her LGBT swimming group Out To Swim was founded, at a time of heightened awareness around HIV and AIDS. She recognises there are still plenty of LGBT rights battles yet to be won around the world.

Vicki Carter, chair of Out To Swim, co-chair of Out For Sport, Team LGBT, Gay Games, Paris 2018
Image: Vicki Carter competed in swimming at the 1994 Gay Games in New York

"Here in the UK, we are very blessed, but many people in other countries are not blessed at all. They are having a hard time. One of the great things that the Federation of Gay Games does is its scholarship program - it provides athletes from underserved countries with a chance to compete. There's still a lot of work for us to do."

For Vicki, seeing bonds of friendship being forged between members of all ages at Out To Swim gives her hope. "There is still homophobia in sport. Even at our grassroots level, we're still getting people coming to us who have had trouble in their previous clubs.

"Out To Swim is such an important part of my life. It's my community, my family as well. We spend a lot of time together, we take a really broad age range of adults, and you get to know people really well. I think because we're swimming and we haven't got any clothes on, it's actually quite an intimate relationship."

Vicki is also co-chair of Out For Sport, the umbrella group for around 40 LGBT sports teams in London and the South East; one of those clubs is TAGS, a group for transgender swimmers which is supported by Out To Swim. "The Federation have made a really big effort to make the Gay Games more trans-friendly," she adds.

"Swimming is a complete cross-section of people. We have some trans swimmers at Out To Swim too and hopefully, we'll see even more trans inclusion in the future."

Warwick Lobban, founder, London Otters

There'll be nearly 350 rowers in action in the Gay Games regatta at Lac de Vaires-sur-Marne, located to the east of Paris. Around 20% of that total will be from one club - the Otters, the UK's only LGBT rowing club, established by Warwick only four years ago. "The club began just a month after the previous Games, in Cleveland. There were only about 10 British rowers competing over there," he says.

Warwick Lobban, Team LGBT, rowing, London Otters, Paris 2018 Gay Games
Image: Warwick Lobban says the London Otters rowers' participation at Paris 2018 will mark 'a pinnacle moment' in the club's history

"Now the Otters alone are sending 74, the largest delegation of any rowing club, and there'll be about 10 or 15 more rowers representing Britain on top of that. We'll also have a few of our Supp-Otters there - that's our name for our loyal supporters who cheer us on!

"We have to come back with at least one medal, because it's going to be really embarrassing if we send the largest delegation and come back with nothing!"

An Otters women's eight will compete, and Warwick hopes to see female representation increase in the coming years.

"The club is still 95% male, but we're trying to change that - it's not an issue that's specific to the Otters," he says. "We were set up as a gay rowing club - it'll just take a little time. We've got a lot of mums now, and they'll start bringing more women in."

Warwick, who also serves as the Otters' social captain, feels Paris will be a milestone in the club's history. "A year ago, we probably wouldn't have been ready to do it as a club. There's been so much planning and training gone into this over the last 12 months.

"One day, when we get our own clubhouse, there's going to be photos in there of us outside the Eiffel Tower. It'll be a pinnacle moment in our rowing journey, and something we'll never forget."

Leviathen Hendricks, Officer of International Development at the Federation of Gay Games

Through the hard work of Leviathen, his Federation of Gay Games colleagues and also the Paris 2018 host team, the 91 countries represented by athletes at this year's event will mark a significant rise from the previous editions at Cologne and Cleveland. "It's a record breaker, which is really rewarding - it shows our mission is having an influence around the world," he says.

Leviathan Hendricks, Director of International Development, Federation of Gay Games
Image: The FGG's International Development director Leviathen Hendricks will play with his club East End Phoenix FC in Paris

"We have women from Jamaica and Korea coming to compete, a few people from Bangladesh, there's a sizeable delegation from Taiwan, plus the Philippines and Indonesia… the list goes on!"

Having played football at Cologne 2010 as part of a team put together by The Justin Campaign, which would later evolve into Football v Homophobia ("we got to play in pink kit, which was always my dream!"), Leviathen will put his boots back on in Paris to assist his London club, East End Phoenix FC. He recalls the opening ceremony in the German city eight years ago as being "overwhelming… just to look around and see thousands of people from around the world, and then meet so many through the week.

"One of my favourite memories from Cologne was one day, hearing this huge shouting and yelling from the pitch next to us, and it was players from Argentina who were celebrating - they'd just received news that equal marriage had been passed back home, at that very hour. That was a cool experience to witness."

Progress in Asia, with the 2022 Gay Games heading to Hong Kong, is of great importance to Leviathen's work with the Federation. As an autonomous territory, Hong Kong's delegation comprises 50 athletes while its next-door neighbour, with whom it enjoys a complex relationship, is now better represented too. "In Cleveland, we had one participant from China," he adds. "This time, there's over 60 people registered from China.

"LGBT movements in Asia are now at a phase where the West has been previously, so for the Gay Games to be of service in terms of the self-respect and confidence of Asian LGBT people is something I'm hugely proud of.

"They say that about two-thirds of the world's population are within a four-hour flight from Hong Kong, so I'm really excited about the opportunities that the 2022 Gay Games presents."

The 10th Gay Games begins in Paris on Saturday and runs until Sunday, August 12.

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