EuroGames Budapest 2012: A perspective from the semiperiphery7. August 2012 - 12:05 — Leila Seper
This years EuroGames, the annual multi-sport LGBT sport championship of Europe, took place in Budapest (27.06-01.07.2012) with sport activities ranging from cross-country running in a park on the edge of town to full on swimming, football, volleyball and basketball competitions amongst others. Various conferences covering issues from human rights to business marketing also took place, alongside several shows including fashion, drag and music performances.The games were divided up by sports, with a variety of political and cultural events, and of course parties including the amazing ANEZ (EuroGames song). The games were focused around a 'village' composed of places to register, eat, drink, play basketball, see exhibitions, attend various conferences and events and (of course) party. The final day ended on a high note with a delicious brunch and socialising with the organisers who were able to relax after the stress of putting on a huge event with 3000 international LGBTQ participants in the non-supportive (if not hostile) environment of the Hungarian capital.
The whole event was organised by no more than two hundred volunteers (with a central team of twenty five), consisting of both an international and a large ‘domestic’ team. I was among them, accommodated in hosted housing at the flat of one of the organisers with a volunteer who had come over from Turkey. I met volunteers from China and many different parts of Europe as well. There was some uncertainty on the first day however, as a large number of local volunteers didn’t turn up. They were perhaps unnerved by the far right’s denouncement of the event and publication of the contact details and facebook profiles of organisers on a website modelled on the notorious Redwatch designed to intimidate the hosts. My participation was primarily shaped through volunteering tasks, as well as participating in the friday morning “half marathon” race. This was also my first visit to an event of this kind. As a queer identified social anthropologist who grew up in Manchester who has now been living in Zagreb for several years, it was hugely interesting to both take part in and observe.
This was the first time the EuroGames took place in Central Eastern Europe, a fact which made it both more accessible to many people from the region, some of whom are unable to afford, or simply not willing to set aside the large amounts of cash required to attend similar events in Western Europe. Nevertheless, the ratio of people from west and north to east and south was still hugely disproportionate. The choice of location also gave the games an interesting dynamic. One example, unfortunately familiar to many who live in the region, was the large amount of police security surrounding the event. There were fears that far right nationalist groupings such as Jobbik, may have attacked the event. Such groups organised rallies during the period of the Games, melodramatically denouncing the event as 'the end of the world'. In the face of little cooperation from the government and negative attitudes towards the event taken by the town mayor (despite some fantastic lobbying from the openly gay mayor of Berlin), the organisers ensured that the games took place and that they took place incredibly successfully. One 'silver lining' however, may have been that this presence led many people coming from Western Europe, familiar with relatively depoliticised and open, heavily commercialised Pride events, to question some of the liberties they normally take for granted. Personally, despite the scare-mongering, I felt secure walking the streets, even alone at night, suggesting that the fascists were using their media coverage and political leverage to play up their presence, whilst they were in fact small in number.
The village and opening ceremony
The village was located just outside of the city centre, on the edge of the main city park. It functioned well for the parties and the brunch session, but failed to materialise as a focal point during the day, a reflection of its relatively peripheral location and the scattered distribution of the sports venues, few of which were nearby. Food and drink was expensive relative to local prices; prices were around twice the price inside the venue compared to in the cafe just by the entrance (a fact which was cunningly concealed to unwitting visitors through the 'token system' employed). This pushed prices up to Western European standards, perhaps as a means of recouping money for the cost of the event (that got no subsidies available to previous hosts). One aspect of this was that it created a 'two tier' system, with prices extremely expensive for some people coming from the region. This was solved with a food and drink 'outreach' option, with a meal provided for those each day, but it didn't cover 'luxuries' such as beer for example.
The opening ceremony took place down the road from the village and a procession was organised with police cordoning off the streets around and securing the way. The march over to the stadium where the ceremony took place felt more like a police escorted walk. Despite attempts to organise Mexican waves and some whistling, it had neither a real carnival atmosphere or a sense of being a directed, organised protest as at some other regional Pride marches. As we reached the stadium, we gathered around outside and were subdivided into 'delegations’, before marching up to the main stage in these groups to the tune of national Eurosong hit songs and flags waving. The stadium used was extremely large given the number of people participating - a precedent set by earlier games. This gave it a sense of grandeur and importance to the event to those observing from outside, yet created a lack of intimacy for those involved in the ceremony itself with numerous empty plastic blue seats.
Some sports were taken very seriously and were (overly)competitive, leading to serious arguments, amongst the footballers for example. The long distance running was much more relaxed – there were around fifty participants altogether and the track was significantly shorter than advertised, through a beautiful forest. It was followed up with a dip in a swimming pool and lunch – maybe a 'queer' half-marathon is 13km (instead of the usual 21km) and a pool party – sounds like more fun to me!
Some sports were extremely professionally setup (sanctioned by official sports bodies), while others, such as the running , compromised such rules and regulations for a greater focus on community and the sharing of experiences through sport. A few of the sports offered were unconventional and exotic to most as “exclusively” nurtured within LGBTQ communities. These included same-sex ballroom dancing and men’s synchronized swimming. Other events included straight participants’ friends and were a mix of real-life sport recreation and this unique context.
Besides the sports events, the festival played host to a range of conferences and other activities like lectures and workshops - with themes and foci ranging from business forums discussing topics such as the pink pound (harnessing the relatively large disposable incomes which particularly characterise gay identified males in market based societies), to conferences looking at homophobia in football and the (possible) organisation of a Central Eastern European LGBTQ sport network. At the latter, it was fascinating to hear a discussion of the different problems LGBTQ sport organising faces at present in different parts of Central Eastern Europe. In Russia for example, legislation against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality means that the clubs can have trouble finding a venue, with venue owners having the legal backing of the state to positively discriminate against LGBTQ people. On the other hand, the fact that the LGBT sport Federation exists and continues to organise events on a regular basis, with a female majority attending (which was refreshing to hear – the male:female ratio at the EuroGames was poor - though the organising team itself was diverse) illustrated the good work that is being done in Russia on a volunteer basis. In Croatia, the issue of building and developing some kind of LGBTQ community, and supporting young LGBTQ identified persons through the potentially difficult process of 'coming out' was of greater importance, whilst in the Czech republic, funding issues and the possibility of creating a sustainable member self funded organisation was a more pedestrian theme. As such, I felt that the different presentations were useful as a guide to what was going on, but that little collaboration beyond solidarity, support, and help with obtaining funds, swapping knowledge and organisational models etc would be possible due to the different directions and issues the organisations face at present.
The conference on homophobia in football was also interesting. As Sonia Parayre, a representative from the Council of Europe / EPAS pointed out, LGBTQ issues in sport are treated with special care and extra caution as reactions are different to those towards other minorities. Also, intolerance is on the rise in football throughout Europe. This is by no means limited to the football pitch, however it does give some kind of indicator of processes more widely at work in society. Challenging homophobia on the football pitch sends out an incredibly powerful symbolic message, because of the high visibility and status of the sport in the media and sport business. Intolerance is clearly connected with the drops in economic standard experienced by many people under the conditions of crisis at present. However, the relationship between tolerance and living standard is much more complex for it feeds into different historical traditions, such as the importance and organisation of religion in different parts of Europe. One of the difficulties with EU diversity policy seems to be that a simple insistence on tolerance and diversity as values has serious limitations for it doesn't engage with these different traditions. However, the work such groups do is nonetheless important and their activities have clearly had a degree of success - they have fused with other initiatives, such as FARE network (Football Against Racism in Europe), which originally had an non-hierarchical and grass roots base. On tackling such discrimination Lou Englefield also discussed the 'Euro Pride House' initiative (remotely based on anarchist ideas and traditions) for creating a 'safe space', free of discrimination. The basic idea is to create a space for viewing sport broadcasts/socializing, where any form of sexism or sexuality based discrimination is not permitted, and people leave any possible prejudices they may have at the door. This was an interesting initiative which could be adapted in Croatia for example, in the creation of 'liberated' queer spaces on a temporary basis at different times in the city centre, taking a lead from events such as the spontaneous pride marches organised recently in Belgrade and Rijeka, which do not rely on heavy security and the presence of various ambassadors and political figures. Advertising and promoting such an event in advance at a fixed venue however, in contradistinction to such events in Western Europe, would leave the event open to attack from fascists. We also learnt about the Justin Campaign, an initiative based in Brighton which seeks to raise the awareness of homophobia in football. It is telling that the one footballer who came out in the UK in the nineties sadly committed suicide, showing how even in countries with an apparently strong track record on tolerance towards homosexuality, prejudice exists, especially in football.
Questions for the future of EuroGames
So what are the possible directions for future EuroGames? How can we avoid two-tiering? Is two-tiering desirable even, if it means more people can participate? One solution would be a means-tested system of scalable fees and prices that reflected the different average wages of the countries in which people participate. Another would be some kind of educational dimension to the event, with a focus on analysing regional inequalities throughout Europe, which up till now have been further accentuated by free market policy making. A free nursery for families with children to use would also improve accessibility.
Some kind of research may also be useful: is it the case that participants coming from Western and Central Eastern Europe respectively have very different takes and expectations of the games? How do standards and opinions vary within the various member states? How can a more inclusive, gender balanced membership be sought out; and why did it seem that the event was dominated by (predominantly single), gay identified males? Where are those gay families that are so hugely celebrated and promoted in LGBTQ media? What about racial and ethnic diversity (many immigrants from non-EU countries, from Asia and South America) that are obvious only in few sports, but not elsewhere among stakeholders? Indeed, what is the new face and take on LGBTQ sports in Europe in the face of growing economic differences?
The fact that the Games took place with relatively little disruption from the far right is clearly a massive success, which all participants and organisers should be proud of. However, it would be great to see some more reflexive discussion about some of the problems mentioned above, and to start imagining possible alternatives which might help create a more inclusive and diverse LGBTQ sport of equality and solidarity.
Andrew Hodges for h-alter.org
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