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    Rainbow Honor Walk

    Dr. Bill Lipsky

    No one ever brought more of the true Olympian spirit to San Francisco than Tom Waddell. As the Olympic Charter holds, he built “a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind,” and he also strove to “promote mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Waddell’s vision, in fact, was even more powerful. He had a goal of furthering, as he explained it, “sport based on inclusion rather than exclusion,” and sport based on equality and universal participation. His Gay Olympic Games would bring people together to know each other and to challengeeach other to excel.

    The Games were held for the first time in San Francisco in 1982. They not only would celebrate people, but they would also enable people to be honest and open with each other about themselves. Anybody could participate, with no regard to race, gender, age, national origin, or sexual orientation – and with no minimum qualifying standards or even athletic ability. The only criteria were the desire to compete and to be one’s best. For his efforts, the United States Olympic Committee took him to court twice.

    Although the word “olympic” has been part of the English language since at least the late 16th century, it became the exclusive property of the United States Olympic Committee in 1978, a gift of the United States Congress. Nineteen days before the opening ceremonies, USOC received the court injunction it sought to forbid Waddell from using the term. Even though it allowed—and allows —pancake, math, frog, pattern, librarian, urology and doggie olympics, among others, without apparent damage or injury to its reputation or world standing, the Committee forced Waddell to delete “olympic” from his organization’s name and everything associated with it, including posters, banners, programs, flags, souvenirs, and award medals.

    The case was argued all the way to the Supreme Court of the United, which ruled in a 5-4 decision in 1987 that USOC had “the legal authority to bar a homosexual rights group from using the generic word ‘olympic’ in the name of its games.” By then, USOC had also sued Waddell for its court costs of some $96,000, and placed a lien on his home.

    A true Olympian, Waddell excelled in many fields. He was born Thomas Flubacher on November 1, 1937, in Paterson, N. J. After his parents separated, he went to live with Gene and Hazel Waddell, who later adopted him and encouraged an interest in sports. At Springfield College in Massachusetts, he joined both the gymnastics and football teams. He was a physical education major too, until the unexpected death of his college roommate and best friend, which moved him to switch to pre-med.

    Waddell graduated from the New Jersey College of Medicine in 1965. The next year, he was drafted into the Army. Two years later, when he received orders to ship out to Vietnam, he told his commanding officer that he was morally opposed to the war and preferred to go to prison. Instead of being court-martialed, however, the military sent him to train, with other service members, for the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. He placed sixth among thirty-three competitors in the decathlon, an outstanding achievement even for an athlete with years of rigorous preparation. Waddell, who had not been in a decathlon for more than five years, had prepared for a negligible three months.

    An individual of wide-ranging interests and concerns, Waddell embraced the cause of human rights his entire life. In 1965, he travelled to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the civil rights demonstrations there. While still in the Army, he openly criticized the Vietnam war. At the 1968 Olympics, he supported the actions of two American athletes who were harshly criticized for giving the Black Power salute during their award ceremony. Even before homosexuality became legal in California, he was openly gay. In 1976, he and Charles Deaton became the first gay partners profiled in People magazine’s “Couples” section. As a healer of human suffering and a champion for human dignity and equal rights, his is a place of distinction on San Francisco’s Rainbow Honor Walk.

    Waddell died on July 11, 1987, but the Gay Games continue as a living tribute to this remarkable man and role model. In 1990, more than seven thousand athletes participated in Gay Games III, held in Vancouver. Four years later, New York’s Gay Games IV, with almost 11,000 athletes from six continents, became the largest amateur sporting event in history, a distinction it held until the 2008 Summer Olympics 14 years later. Gay Games IX will take place at locations in Cleveland and Akron in 2014.

    Bill Lipsky, PhD, author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.