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Clinton welcomes 'powerful' gay games

Croquet has been dropped but same-sex ice dancing is over-subscribed. That is the hot news from the Fourth Gay Games which opens in Manhattan tomorrow.

More than 11,000 people from 40 countries have signed up for 31 sports, including swimming, ice hockey (with three women's teams called the Mighty Dykes), discus, billiards, badminton, softball, cycling and soccer.

One gay group wanted a friendly match with the Italian World Cup team, but the 'Battling Blues' did not think it was quite their thing. Croquet was dropped because lawns are hard to find in New York. Fans are already bemoaning the loss of the accompanying tea and cucumber sandwiches.

President Clinton has sent a letter of welcome to the players, saluting the games for its 'powerful message of equality and acceptance to people everywhere'.

New York's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who has little support in the gay community, sent a very straight letter saying the city would be 'richer in every sense'. He was probably talking about hotel occupancy.

Half a million visitors are expected from all over the world for the high camp and high hurdles, and the other big event in the gay calendar, which happens to coincide with the games: the 25th anniversary of the gay riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, generally accepted as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

This time the games' organisers would like everyone to take the event more seriously than last time in Vancouver. Then, the track-and- field co-ordinator ran off with a new lover five days before the event, and spectators had to come down out of the stands to officiate.

The multi-cultural nature of the event is stressed. Anyone can take part. Although one of the star events is the physique competition, with its pulsating strobe lights and skimpy bikinis, you don't have to be body beautiful, or even gay. Non-gays, the fat and the ugly are all welcome. That, after all, was the original idea of the late Tom Waddell, a former Olympic decathlete who launched the games in San Francisco in 1982 as a political statement.

To underline equality everyone gets a medal, no matter how they perform. But some real professionals are taking part, including a number of professional ice hockey players. Whether they will appear in drag, as many amateurs do, is not yet known. There is at least one ice-based S&M event on the programme.

The opening game of touch-football is between New York and Hollywood, complete with singing 'Queerleaders'. And in the women's volleyball, the star performer comes from California and is nicknamed 'The Beach'. New York's team is called 'To Serve With Love'.

The Gay Games poster boy is Bruce Hayes, a gold medallist on the 1984 Olympic 800- meter relay team. He's in six races. The big swimming event is the relay in which men dress in women's underwear, wigs, white gloves and black rhinestone sunglasses. They use a pink flamingo as a baton.

This year's commercial side of the games has upset many fans who would like to keep it on a much lower key. Airlines and beer companies have contributed. And in the games headquarters in the Pennsylvania Hotel in Manhattan there is a collection of stalls selling high-priced hi- tech and low-fat products, hoping to scoop up the gay big spenders.

One stall owner tried to interest me in a television cunningly concealed in a pair of goggles priced dollars 750 ( pounds 500), and in some enzyme-rich dried-fruit bars. I came away with a badge which read: 'Please don't feed or tease the straight people'.