I started to be really proud of the fact that I was gay, even though I wasn'tKurt Cobain.
‘Watch it’ I warned as I tried to get established over the top of the overhanging side, of one of the Columbus boulders in New York’s Central Park. The Big Apple at the end of June is hot and muggy like being in a sauna, and sweat poured into my eyes as I hung there contemplating a fall. As I continued to struggle, I became conscious that a bearded, gangling fellow had appeared as if from nowhere, and was now sitting cross legged and chanting out aloud beneath myself; occupying the only possible landing place.
Desperation set in and with a last gasp effort I managed with a type of belly flop to somehow get safely landed on the rounded summit of the boulder. Feeling angry about the action of this inconsiderate newcomer, I descended quickly intending to give him a rollicking, only to find him sitting in the lotus position, chanting and oblivious to that which was going on around him.
‘Hey....what are you doing?’ I testily demanded… He looked at me bemused and I guessed he was spaced out? But then he announced ‘This is my Karma centre’ ‘A Buddhist, what kind Hinayana or Mahayana?’ I enquired. ‘I’m Zen man, Zen’ he replied then continued chanting his mantra. He certainly looked like being in touch with something other-worldly, sitting on the pile of wood chips spread by the local climbers, along the base of the boulders to provide safe and clean landings. ‘Only in the US of A’ I mused as I moved away, to seek out another bouldering venue in the Park, near to the Zoo.
Such was to be my introduction to climbing in the City, a place to which I had been briefly before on several occasions, passing through on my way to climb at the Shawangunks and in New Hampshire. But here I was for two weeks attending the biggest athletic/cultural event outside of the Olympics, with 11,000 other participants, from 31 sports, and 2500 artists, taking part in everything from jazz concerts, art and photographic exhibitions to dance and theatre performances. This was to be the Gay Games lV, and I have never been to anything before or since which matched it for interest and a fun time.
It all began for me with a notice on a board at the Foundry Climbing Centre in Sheffield announcing ‘Sports Climbing is now to be included in the 1994 Gay Games, in New York. You do not have to be gay to take part, just gay friendly’. A contact given for the UK was Phil Judson, whose address indicated he lived near me, so intrigued, I phoned him to enquire about further details of the event. It did sound interesting and Phil asked if I could try to persuade some of the British Sports Climbing team to take part, as he felt it was necessary to make a strong showing, as some who would take part, especially from the USA would be of international standard. I contacted two members of the British team known to me, and was shocked by their homophobic responses. Typical of these was the one who declined, because she felt that if she did take part, people would think she was gay, and this might adversely affect her standing in our sport.
Sorrowfully I had some time later to advise Phil that I had not been able to get any of our National team to take part. ‘Would you be willing to make up the team?’ he enquired, and after some hesitation, for Gay in 1994 was not accepted as it is in 2018, I agreed. To then find myself to be one of the British participants, selected by the Gay Outdoor Club (whose existence until then I was not aware of), made up of three guys and two gals.
Due to flight availability I flew out ahead of the others, and was surprised, to find on my arrival in New York that two locals had volunteered to be my hosts for the two weeks of the Games. Like thousands of others in the City they had agreed to put up a participant/s free of any charge, and I was soon to find out what an incredible piece of luck this was. Their apartment overlooked the western aspect of Central Park, New York’s impressive green oasis, which must be the most interesting of its kind anywhere? I could be out there bouldering in minutes, watch the roller-bladers in the Mall, sit and listen to talented busking musicians, including the finest jazz funk combo I have ever heard, and also watch the soft ball players. I could stroll in the Strawberry Fields (a tribute to John Lennon), go for a run on the reservoir track, and attend the numerous events held in the Park which were to be a part of the Games, including the Marathon.
Most days I went out to the boulders early in the morning before it became too hot to climb, and through doing this I made acquaintance with a climber from Boulder, who was working on a short-term construction project in New York. Chuck was physically ripped and as he climbed wearing only shorts and rock-boots, with his muscles bulging in acute definition he looked more like a body builder than a climber. The third day I was bouldering with him, working the classic traverse from right to leftwards of the Columbus boulders, two guys came running past obviously training for the Marathon, wearing Gay Games T- shirts. 'Jeez look at those faggots’ Chuck exclaimed to me. ‘I just don’t get it, they will be on the cliffs next, and I’ll be moving out!’
Coming to the end of our session, changing from rock boots into trainers he then began to quiz me on my life and background. And, ‘Why was I in the Big Apple?’ I swallowed hard and had difficulty responding but managed to gasp out ‘I’m here for the Games’. This he mistook for the Soccer World Cup then in progress; Ireland my mother’s country having beaten Italy just the preceding day. ‘Boy you Limeys will go anywhere just to watch a game of soccer. Me I would sooner watch the NBA’ ‘No I’m here for the Gay Games’ I managed to blurt out’. ‘Holy shit man…. I’m sorry, I did not wish to offend you’ he replied, so obviously embarrassed. I am sure he didn’t, but homophobia lies deep in the psyche of some climbers, and in the past, my own climbing friends and I might have been just as guilty of the cheap jibe and hurtful stereotype.
Ian McKellan shows his support: New York 1994
From daily attending at the boulders I met a keen Latino lady, Renato. She was in her early twenties, tall and elegant, with an impressive shock of black curly hair. Every day she was there early in the morning working the classic traverse, but always failing on the final difficult two step moves. But nevertheless, because she was so keen I dubbed her ‘The Queen of the Boulders’. Eventually after daily practice, I had these final moves wired and could manage them at every crossing. This as long as the sun was not on the rock, for being a smooth volcanic series, it then became greasy and almost un-climbable.
‘Why don’t you work the final section?’ I suggested to her after she had failed for the third time one morning. She grimaced but took my advice, and after completing the end moves successfully several times, took a long rest, then set forth. This time she climbed faultlessly and easily completed the whole traverse. At which she was openly delighted and turned and hugged me to her. ‘Tonight you must come out with me’ she decided. ‘Can you dance?’ ‘No Renato no’ ‘You will’ she advised letting go of me. ‘My friends and I are going to the concert here in the Park this evening; it is Ben Jori the best Salsa band in the world. There will be thousands attending from New York’s Latino community’.
Who has not heard of the famous open air, summer concerts in Central Park?...... Simon and Garfunkel, Mahalia Jackson, The New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, but Salsa? I expressed my doubts to Renato that I thought this music would not be my kind of beat, but just a few hours later I had to confess a new found enthusiasm for Latin American music. Literally tens of thousands of enthusiasts were up on their feet, including myself, twirling and moving to the Ben Jori sounds.
New York despite being a huge metropolis, with a large climbing community, had I was surprised to find out only two climbing walls; one in a converted bath house, run by a voluntary group ‘The City Climbers’, as a co-operative without the benefit of air conditioning, whilst the other one which had, was in a ritzy health club.
This was inside the Manhattan Plaza between 9th and 10th Avenues, and so the next day with Renato as my guide, I went to check this out.
It had fitted carpets, wall to wall, icy cold air conditioning, was quiet like a library and only about the size of a small sports hall. The routes were rather unimaginative, but what was the worst feature was the entry price.
That night I attended the ‘Out of Towner’s Ball’, which was the first event of the hectic social round, to be run in tandem with the Games. This was held at Roseland, then the biggest disco in the world, and my hosts advised me that ‘If you wanna to see some good dancing, you must go there early’, and so I did.
When I arrived there were only about six guys on the dance floor, but they were all gold medal standard dancers. Moon walking, back flips, somersaulting all in time to the music, it impressed on me what an art form this had become. Staying late, for the evening only peaked after midnight, and then travelling home on the subway was as exciting as traversing a Himalayan icefall. The hint of menace at two in the morning, inside those cavernous depths where muggings were at that date, a nightly occurrence kept the adrenaline flowing.
However the next morning I was up early to catch a bus from the Port Authority terminal, north to the Catskills to meet up with a Slovak climber ,who I had climbed with previously in that country. Two hours later I arrived in New Palz at the foot of the Shawangunks, from where I set out to try to hitchhike to Sky Top, one of the furthest away of the Catskill outcrops, at which I was eventually dropped off by a local apple farmer driving a pick- up truck.
I had not seen Pietr for quite some time, but now here he was living and climbing in New York State. He had ‘escaped’ the Eastern-bloc during the 1980’s, and had managed to gain refuge in the USA, where he was now an entrepreneur in the real estate business. I had been worried that the good life might have made him indolent but he was just as lean, tall and fit looking as I had remembered him. At this reunion we fell to laughing remembering how he had presented me as a rich relative from England, when we had to face the authorities in Bratislava over an illegal currency exchange.
Sky Top is an amazing place. Unfortunately like the rest of the Shawangunks you have to pay to climb there, something that grates in the so called ‘Land of the free’. But once inside it’s a magic place, with walkways and gardens, and a large hotel complex; surrounded by rock outcrops set above a picturesque artificial lake. After soloing, a couple of easy 5.5 routes, we decided to move up the grades to Mini Belle a 5.8 pioneered by an old friend, Fritz Wiessner in 1946.
I had ascended this before but for Pietr this was a challenge. It starts with a difficult section from off the ground and then a series of steep pulls and layback moves to reach easier terrain. My companion,
with an initial hesitation then quickly overcame these, and soloing up behind him, I was impressed that when I had previously climbed the route over 20 years before, it had not registered with me how difficult those first moves really are.
That night I returned to New York to meet up with the rest of our team who were flying into the JFK airport. They had arrived just in time for the Games opening ceremony, which was held the very next day in the Wein stadium out in a City suburb. I guess that is when I first began to realise what an enormous event the Games organising committee were overseeing, as it finally got under away. Maybe I was badly informed prior to this, but perhaps most other climbers of my generation would have been similarly ignorant?
11,000 athletes had assembled from 44 countries, and marching along and involved that day was every level of performer from some like myself, just there for the hell of it, to Olympic gold medallists, a Wimbledon winner, and former world record holders. The organisers had brought in some of the biggest names in show business to orchestrate and produce the event. There were marching bands and cheerleaders, a choir and an orchestra. Amongst the British contingent marching along were Stephen Fry and Ian McKellen. I ventured to ask Stephen Fry which event he had entered for, but he laughed out loud at this, then replied ‘They have not included my event yet’. ‘What is that’ I asked thinking he might be keen on Sumo or some other similar sport, ‘Flower arranging dear boy, flower arranging’ he advised.
Our British team for the Sports climbing then held some last minute training at the City Climber’s Wall situated in an old bathhouse down on the lower West Side. This was run by climbers for climbers, several of which were behind the organisation of the climbing event to be held at the Games. Although this facility was small by modern standards, boasting only about 40 routes, and not very high, they were then the best such climbs I had encountered on a climbing wall, where route setting is key to achieving such a result. The City Climbers kindly let us use their facilities for free, and at our team meetings I was impressed by the strength of one of our members, Zak Nataf, a film director from London. She was actually at home, being a local girl born in Harlem, NYC!
Vision Video Memories: New York 94
The Sports Climbing, competition needed to be held in New Palz at the ‘Inner Wall’, there being no suitable venue then available in New York. This was a fine modern panel wall and the route setting had been carried out by a team led by Ralph Erenzo. On arriving there with the rest of the competitors I found out I was entered in the Veterans class and that the competition was to take place over two days, a qualifying one and then the finals. There were more than 90 competitors mainly from the USA, but some were from Europe and even Australia.
The Gay Games was the brainchild of Dr Tom Waddell, who finished sixth in the 1968 Olympic Decathlon, and though the standards in the Sports Climbing were as expected much lower than those pertaining in other current Internationals; for many of the other events only a world class performance could secure a win.
The morning of the commencement of the Sports climbing competition all of the competitors and volunteers travelled to New Palz from New York, on a fleet of buses, provided by the organisers. During that first day each of us had to climb six routes, of which only four would count towards the elimination scores. Each route had been awarded a number of points, with the easiest having the lowest and the hardest the highest. I decided to climb three easy ones, and then try three, which were much harder. I failed on one of these but managed the others successfully. And so when my scores were added up, I found I had qualified for the finals, so had Zak and Phil. But unfortunately our other two team members, Martin and Sophie just had not amassed sufficient points to make the cut.
Immediately the first day’s competition was over and the names of the qualifiers announced an impromptu party began. Led off by a team of Lesbian drummers; and then a Canadian competitor took over, who earned his living as a stand up comedian. He had everyone laughing out loud at his comedy aimed at the incongruity of climbing up an artificial wall, instead of the real thing, the rocks of the Shawangunks lying literally just up the road.
The finals the next day could not have been better supported, with the Inner Wall packed to suffocation with failed competitors, and spectators. There were two routes set, which had to be attempted by both the men and the women (I think these latter would not have wished it otherwise). I was rather gob-smacked to find we veterans were to attempt these as well, and we had to also suffer isolation.
In the men’s event I had drawn out to be the first to climb, and when I walked out to the foot of the first route I was greeted by a thunderous applause. Which was to be a real anti-climax for the spectators, for after completing the preliminaries, tying onto the rope and starting out on a difficult rising traverse, I simply greased off the holds and landed onto the floor to be counted out.
Phil fared somewhat better than me and made quite some progress before he too fell off. It seemed that the first route was difficult, for the favourite, a 21 year old local climber appropriately named Mountain Miller, also failed to complete this, but climbed high enough to qualify to attempt the second route. On which he stormed up to reach the belay chain, a feat which, no other male competitor succeeded in managing, and so he was the outright winner of the men’s competition.
The women were actually stronger than the men, and as Diane Russell was a participant, and a former USA National Sports climbing champion, our team member Zak knew she was in for a real challenge. It was to be a really impressive performance by Diane which won the day, for she completed both routes, whilst Zak managed within one or two moves to complete the first, but happily was successful on the second. No other women or man managed other than Mountain Miller to complete either of these routes.
That was the end of the competition and both Phil and I were surprised, at the awards ceremony held at its finish, to find he had won the Veterans gold medal and I the bronze, whilst Zak had won the silver medal for her performance in the women’s event. Thus our team had won three medals, and only the USA had bested us.
Within minutes of the completion of the Awards ceremony, with much cheering of every medallist, as they were called up to receive their award, another party was soon under away. This was the most enjoyable such sports climbing event I have ever attended. And as someone who was an organiser along with the equipment manufacturer from Wales, DMM of the first World Cup event in Leeds in the late 1980’s, I can honestly report this one was much more friendly and fun.
The closing ceremony at the end of the New York Gay Games in the Yankee stadium exceeded every other such ceremony I have attended. 55,000 people turned out for the most spectacular entertainment one could imagine. This was more impressive than most closing ceremonies at the Olympic Games, for it was so varied and included something such events usually lack; humour. No West End or Broadway theatre could have afforded the cast list, for it included a thousand member gospel choir; dancers from the New York City ballet, and once again marching bands, stars from the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway, jazz , classical musicians and much more. But for me Cyndi Lauper stole the show, singing ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ supported by a troupe of male dancers, from the New York City ballet in drag. So ended for me two weeks, made up of many memorable experiences, and If you have never been to the Big Apple, my advice it to go there as soon as you are able, and if you’re a climber pack your rock gear, but also a pair of dancing shoes, ready for a spot of moon walking.
Surprising to myself, negative comment appeared about my own participation in the Gay Games, as detailed above. Which is why I did not write up a fulsome report at that time, with merely a short note appearing written by myself in ‘On the Edge’ magazine, but this is the first occasion I have covered these events. Fortunately this is now against the tide of developing opinion within the sport, which is to be more inclusive, equal and diverse. Long may this trend continue to expand and influence the thinking of today’s participants!
There are now around a dozen climbing walls in New York, illustrating how-popular indoor climbing has become in that City.The next Gay Games are to be held in Paris in 2018 (Limerick and London were short listed), 17 cities have bid to host the 2022 event, including Capetown, Guadalajara (Mexico), Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.The Winter Games are held at one site, Whistler in Canada.