GLBTI athletes from around Australia will this week head to the Cologne Gay Games, to be held in Germany from July 31 to August 7.
Heading to Cologne with our queer contingent will be two more widely known athletes — Olympic diving champion Matthew Mitcham and retired Olympic cycling medallist Michelle Ferris.
Both are Australian ambassadors for the Games, and will be on hand at various functions and events as part of their ambassadorial duties.
Ferris, who put in silver medal-winning efforts in the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics, is also competing in Cologne.
“I’m competing in a few cycling events — the road race, the criterion, the mountain bike events — and I’m also going to do the 10km run. I figured while I’m there, I might as well get right into it,” she told Southern Star.
“The ambassador role came first, and through my duties with that, I decided to compete too.”
Ferris previously appeared at the 2002 Sydney Gay Games, handing out cycling medals, but this is her first time competing.
“I’m so excited to be going over to Cologne; it’s a city with such a rich history, and such a vibrant gay community too, from what I hear. It’s going to be a busy 10 days.”
Mitcham’s stay will be shorter — unlike Ferris, he still has a rigorous Olympic-level training schedule to keep up, so has only been able to snatch three days for his Cologne visit.
“It’s by no means a holiday … it’ll be action packed,” he told SS in an interview book ended by training sessions.
“I’ll have to keep up my gym work while I’m there, because the Commonwealth Games are in October and my coach doesn’t want me missing out on too much training, then there’ll be medal ceremonies, a bit of speaking, attending a lot of functions and events …”
Sounds like the sort of schedule reserved for the Queen at the Olympic Games.
“Exactly. It’s quite a fitting description, I think. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but it’ll be fun, that’s for sure. I won’t have a lot of leisure time, but I still get to go over — which is what I really want to do — while keeping my coach happy.”
For Ferris, the Gay Games represents a more social sporting event than some she’s previously competed in. That said, she was keen to point out that her focus was still on competition.
“It’ll definitely be social, but once you get over there and get on the start line, it’s just like any other race — you want to do your best and you want to win a medal so you can take home some bling,” she said.
“You can’t help but be competitive when you’re on that start line. My races are all over four days, one after the next, so I’ll be pretty exhausted by the end of that, but I’m also looking forward to heading out and enjoying a few steins and soaking up the German hospitality.”
Asked if the Gay Games were still relevant in a world where more and more athletes in quote-unquote ‘mainstream’ sport were coming out, both were adamant the event would continue to hold an important place on the world sporting stage.
“I still think it is relevant. A lot of people participate in sport for the social aspects, not just to compete. It’s such a great opportunity for people from around the world to get together, compete, and also hopefully make some lasting friendships,” said Ferris.
“I think there’s a good use and a good purpose for (the Gay Games),” said Mitcham.
“A lot of people participating in events at the Gay Games might not normally feel as comfortable, but being surrounded by their peers means there’s nothing holding them back, they feel safe and supported, and they can perform at their best. It could even act as a platform for people to get involved with mainstream sport.”
Mitcham even admitted life might have been easier for him had he competed in the Gay Games earlier in his career.
“I think I’d have peers, people that I’ve got more in common with. I sometimes feel like the only gay in the village in diving, because there are almost no other gay divers around. I often feel quite — not alone, because I have a lot of good friends in the diving world — but a bit isolated.”
Still, for Mitcham, the rewards have been worth the sacrifice. Earlier this year he won his first major competition since his gold win at Beijing, holding him in good stead for the Commonwealth Games to be held in New Delhi in three months’ time.
“It was the first time I actually won anything big since the Olympics — I’d won a few silver and bronze, but then in Canada in May I won the Canada Cup with a PB (personal best), then three weeks later I went to the World Cup in China and won that too, beating my PB again.
“I guess my last few months of training have come together really well — it was the culmination of a few months of the hardest training schedule I think I’ve ever been on.”
Let’s hope Mitcham’s training schedule allows for at least one night off so he can enjoy a stein or two with Ferris and the rest of the Aussie athletes competing in Cologne.