Sydney stays aloof as Gay Games kick off

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Chandeliers wink overhead as 100 couples glide across the polished wooden floor to the strains of a languid Viennese waltz. It could be any Saturday morning dance class, except for one striking thing: all the men are dancing with men and all the women with women.

Chandeliers wink overhead as 100 couples glide across the polished wooden floor to the strains of a languid Viennese waltz. It could be any Saturday morning dance class, except for one striking thing: all the men are dancing with men and all the women with women.

The couples are honing their routines in preparation for the 2002 Gay Games, an international sporting extravaganza which opened with a flamboyant ceremony in Sydney last night. Same-sex ballroom dancing is one of the more unusual sports featured at the Games, which are staged in a different city every four years.

Unlike the Olympics, the Gay Games are open to everyone, regardless of athletic prowess. You need not even be gay to take part; inclusiveness is the guiding principle and participation is more important than breaking records. This means the event is not taken entirely seriously from a sporting perspective – although it attracts more competitors than the Olympics: 13,000 people from 80 countries.

Some are deadly earnest about their sports; others treat the games as an excuse for a week-long party. There are social functions galore, and Sydney's parks and swimming pools are awash with immaculately toned, bronzed bodies. "The coach is always on at us to try and win more medals," said Ivan Bussens, a member of the British water polo team, sunning himself on Bondi Beach.

Games organisers are relieved they are taking place at all. Tickets sold slowly, sponsors were difficult to seduce and the games teetered on the brink of financial ruin. The post-11 September tourism slump was partly to blame but, with Sydney's renowned Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras going bankrupt earlier this year, many people are asking whether the gay community has outgrown such events.

Marcus O'Donnell, editor of the Sydney Star Observer, the city's leading gay newspaper, believes that the community is in transition. "We had the struggle for equal rights, then there was a honeymoon period when everything gay was exciting and glamorous," he said. "Now we're in a third phase where the novelty has worn off, and it's not clear where we're heading."

The games, which began in San Francisco in 1982, have spanned those three phases. The founding aim was to gain acceptance for gays and lesbians through sport. Two decades on, sport is one of the few areas where gay people still feel alienated and discriminated against. Only a handful of elite sportsmen and women are openly gay; others, presumably, dare not risk their sponsorship dollars.

The British swimming team, Out To Swim, includes Peter Prijdekker, a member of the Dutch squad at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Mr Prijdekker, who subsequently moved to London, was ostracised by his swimming club after his partner died of Aids. He is an enthusiastic participant in the Gay Games. "It gives everyone a chance to live the dream," he said.

Countries represented at the Games include a dozen, such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Egypt, where homosexuality is still proscribed. The menu for this week includes Olympic sports such as track and field as well as less conventional offerings such as body-building, same-sex figure skating and billiards.

Eleven British couples – members of a 650-strong UK team – are competing in ballroom dancing. They include Jacky Appleton, a librarian, who will be wearing black trousers and a net and fake leather top when she takes to the floor with her partner, Mary. "That's the great thing about gay dancing," said Ms Appleton. "You can choose whether to lead or to follow, whether to wear trousers or a dress."

Mary, a GP, did not want her surname published. She explained: "I'm out as a lesbian, but I'm not out as a ballroom dancer. I still can't get over the image of ballroom dancing."

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