Building a Gay Sports Legacy: The Story of Tom Waddell
Article Date: 11/09/2007
By Dylan Vox
Tom Waddell is often credited with making the biggest contribution to the gay sports movement ever by founding the first Gay Games, but there is a story behind the great man of triumph and tragedy that is often never told. An Olympian himself, Waddell knew the pressures of competition, but as a gay man, that competition was only half of his battle.
His struggle for acceptance and his life tale has become an inspiration to athletes of all races, nationalities and sexual orientations. His is the story of an ordinary man who reached extraordinary heights. This is the story of Tom Waddell.
Waddell was born into a conservative Catholic family in Patterson New Jersey in 1937. Life was tough for young Thomas Flubacher, his birth name, who struggled with his parents over his sexuality. As an exceptional scholar, Tom became aware that he was a homosexual early on in life and used athletics as a way to compensate for what he once felt was a shortcoming.
He excelled at football and track and field, but his home life continued to become more and more strained. In his teens, his parents finally split up and Tom was no longer welcome to live with either one. He packed up and went to live with the Waddell family for whom he had worked in the summer months.
The Waddell’s were former vaudevillian acrobats and dancers and offered a more stable and accepting home life to the young athlete. They eventually adopted him into their family, and Tom changed his name to Waddell. The colorful family gave Tom the opportunity to express his talents and encouraged him to take up gymnastics.
Continuing to excel at sports through his high-school years, Waddell eventually attended college on a full track scholarship where he planned on studying physical education. It was only after the death of one of his gymnastics teammates that Waddell became interested in medicine, and it would become one of the most successful driving forces in his life.
He attended medical school at the New Jersey College of Medicine and would later in life hold positions as a researcher at Stanford Medical School, and as chief physician for San Francisco’s public first aid clinic.
It was the summer before he went to med school that Waddell met the first great love of his life while working at a summer camp for children.
Sixty-three year old Enge Menaker was a well-known communist journalist who wrote columns about the unequal treatment of African-American’s and gay people in the United States. It was through Menaker that Tom began to develop his sense of justice and equality, and it was a relationship that would continue throughout his life.
He joined civil rights marches and began speaking out at school about the injustices that were being committed against African-American’s.
In 1966, Waddell was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War, and it was a move that he greatly resented and publicly voiced his dissent about. However, Waddell accepted his fate and used it as an opportunity to further his medical training, becoming a preventative medical officer helping troops to ward off infection during combat.
He was bound for Vietnam when, instead, a twist of fate assigned him to participate in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The Olympics were shrouded in controversy as many Mexican college students felt that the money should have been spent on social programs instead of the Games. A crowd of 5,000 students led a protest before the event, which resulted in the killing of 300 people when the Mexican Army began firing into the demonstration.
With very little training for the event, Waddell felt that his presence in the games could have a positive effect on social change. He competed in the decathlon, representing the United States, and finished sixth among the 33 competitors, but it was his influential voice rather than his placement that would truly have an impact on sports.
At the event two black American track and field runners, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, made a controversial stand against racism in the United States when they lowered their heads and made a fist symbolizing black power while receiving their medals.
Waddell publicly supported the move and was threatened with a court martial from the United States Army. He eventually was discharged and would return to his love of medicine, but also became an outspoken gay rights activist when he moved to San Francisco.
There he met Charles Deaton and the two men began a romantic affair that became highly publicized in gay society. In 1976, the two men became the first two gay people featured in the “Couples” section of American People Magazine.
While attending a gay bowling competition in San Francisco, Waddell became fascinated with the concept of developing a competition based on the Olympics, which would allow gay athletes to participate and celebrate their achievements.
He took to the road and formed committees to help make his vision a reality. The first event was to be held in his adopted home city in 1982 and would invite participants from all over the world to compete in 16 different sports.
Modeled after the Olympics, Waddell at first called the event the Gay Olympic Games. The United States Olympic Committee filed a petition to seek an injunction from allowing the games to use the Olympic title.
Although previously the Rat Olympics, Police Olympics, Dog Olympics and Special Olympics had all gone unchallenged, the USOC felt that the use of the name in a homosexual event would tarnish the reputation of their trademark. The injunction was eventually granted and hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise and signage had to be removed from the event in order to adhere with the court’s decree.
That set back, however, didn’t stop the games from being a success as over 1,600 athletes descended on the city to compete in the first ever newly named Gay Games.
Waddell had made his dream come true and had given the opportunity for gay athletes from around the world to show that they can be a powerful force in sport.
During the preparation of the event, Tom met fellow athlete and gay activist Sara Lewenstein. Lewenstein co-founded the Gay Games and served as vice president for San Francisco Arts and Athletics during the event.
Though both gay, the couple wanted to have a child and was legally married in order to preserve the rights of both parents. In 1983, Jessica Waddell Lewinstein was born, and a new chapter of Waddell’s life seemed about to begin.
The couple began planning the future Games, which would be held again in San Francisco four years later. The event would double in size, and the interest in the gay sports movement would continue to grow.
Four weeks before the event was about to kick off, Waddell was sadly diagnosed with HIV and was suffering from pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Not one to back down from a challenge, he still went on to compete at the sophomore event and earned a gold medal in the javelin competition.
One year later on July 11, 1987, the 49-year-old died of complications due to the AIDS virus, but his legacy would live on through the lifetime of work he had dedicated to gay athletes.
The 2006 Chicago Gay Games saw more than 12,500 participants and became a financial success as well as a tribute to the spirit of gay athletes everywhere. Tom Waddell began a fight that would help change the landscape of gay American society, and his efforts will always be looked at as beginning a revolution of equality. With high profile athletes like Greg Louganis, Martina Navratilova, Esera Tuaolo, John Amaechi and many others supporting the cause, the gay sports movement has continued to grow.
As an athlete Waddell conquered great feats in competition, but as a man his actions have insured that future generations will have the opportunity to make their own mark in sports regardless of sexual orientation.
Lewenstein once said “Tom Waddell envisioned the Games as a vehicle of change”, and as time has proven, that change is slowly coming.