Envisioned as an inclusive celebration of lesbian and gay athletes, they Gay Olympic Games were first held in 1982 in San Francisco. Although the Games were consciously modeled after the official Olympics, founder Dr. Thomas Waddell disliked the commercialization, nationalism, racism, and politicization of the Olympics, and therefore strived to create an event centered around participation, inclusion, and self-fulfillment. While any person over the age of 18 could participate, the planning committee created outreach committees to recruit racial minorities and athletes from rural areas to participate as well as a committees to recruit women across the country. In order to discourage excessive competition, the athletic events were often co-ed or featured co-ed teams, and medals and record-keeping were banned.
Because lesbians and gay men had largely separated social and political lives, the Gay Games brought these communities together both in the planning and the athletic events. Lesbians played an important role on the Board of Directors for the Games by emphasizing the perspectives of lesbians, recruiting other women, and fundraising. While the Games helped gay men validate their masculinity and push back against feminine stereotypes, they had a different purpose for lesbians, who were already stereotyped as athletes. Because many women were pushed away from certain sports at a professional or even amateur level, the Gay Games gave lesbians the opportunity to enjoy “rugged” sports like rugby or weightlifting and to be celebrated for their participation and achievements.
Originally named the Gay Olympic Games, Tom Waddell and the planning committee were informed several months before the event began that the United States Olympic Committee would not allow them to use the words “Olympic” or “Olympiad,” which ignited a legal battle that would last five years. The organizing committee argued that the rule violated the First and Fifth Amendments, and was a clear discriminatory action as events such as the Armenian Olympics, the Crab-Cooking Olympics, and the Dog Olympics had been sanctioned and allowed by the USOC.