DR. TOM WADDELL was a gay American physician, sportsman and competitor at the 1968 Summer Olympics, who died on this date (b: 1937). Waddell founded the Gay Olympics in 1982 in San Francisco. The international sporting event was later renamed the Gay Games after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sued Dr. Waddell for using the word “Olympic” in the original name. The Gay Games are held every four years.
Tom Waddell attended Springfield College in Massachusetts on a track scholarship. Originally majoring in physical education, he switched to pre-medicine following the sudden death of his best friend and co-captain of the gymnastics team, an event that moved him deeply. At Springfield, he competed on the gymnastics and football teams. In the summer of 1959, Tom worked at a children’s camp in western Massachusetts, where he met his first lover, socialist Enge Menaker, then a 63-year-old man. They remained close for the rest of Menaker’s life, which ended in 1985 when he was 90 years old.
Dr. Waddell traveled on a U.S. State Department-sponsored track and field tour of Africa in 1962. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, he placed sixth among the 33 competitors. He broke five of his own personal records in the 10 events. In 1972, in a track meet in Hawaii, he injured his knee in a high jump, which ended his career as a competitive athlete.
Soon after returning to San Francisco in 1972, Waddell joined a gay bowling league. It inspired him to consider organizing a gay sporting event modeled on the Olympics. He followed through with the idea in the early 1980s. The first “Gay Olympics” was to take place in San Francisco in 1982 in the form of a sports competition and arts festival. But a few weeks before the event was to begin, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sued the organization over its use of the word “Olympic.”
Despite the fact that the IOC had not previously protested when other groups had used the name, they alleged that allowing “Gay Olympics” would injure them. They succeeded in securing an injunction just nineteen days before the first games were to begin.
Nevertheless, the games, now re-christened the “Gay Games,” went forward. It was and remains a great success, perhaps because they emphasize sportsmanship, personal achievement, and inclusiveness to a far greater degree than the Olympics. There is a famous story of Waddell meeting Leonard Bernstein at a party in San Francisco, related in Douglass Shand-Tucci’s The Crimson Letter. Waddell was telling Bernstein about his plans for the Gay Olympics, to which Bernsteion replied “My god–who needs Gay Olympics?” Waddell related that he turned on his heels and walked away. At which point Bernstein, in a stage voice that pursued Waddell across the room, asked “Who’s that fucking queen?” Waddell allowed that, had Bernstein not been drunk, he would have slugged him.
In 1981, while founding the Gay Games, Waddell met two people with whom he formed major relationships. One was public relations man and fundraiser Zohn Artman, with whom he fell in love and began a relationship. The other was lesbian athlete Sara Lewinstein. Both Tom and Sara had longed to have a child, and they decided to have a child together. Their daughter, Jessica, was born in 1983. To protect Jessica’s and her mother’s legal rights, Tom and Sara married in 1985.
In 1985, he was diagnosed with AIDS. Although dogged by the IOC’s lawsuit, Waddell lived to see the success of Gay Games II in 1986, and even participated, winning the gold medal in the javelin event.
Dr. Tom Waddell died from HIV-AIDS on this date, aged 49, in San Francisco, California. His last words were “Well, this should be interesting.” His battle against HIV/AIDS is one of the subjects of the award-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. With sports writer Dick Schaap, Waddell wrote an autobiography titled Gay Olympian.