The highly anticipated 2006 Gay Games have kicked off with a spectacular opening ceremony at Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday night.

Thousands of spectators cheered as over 12 000 athletes from close to 70 countries, including South Africa, entered the stadium. This is the seventh Gay Games, which take place every four years, and will feature competitions in 30 sports, ranging from recreational to elite categories, as well as a host of cultural events.

Performers at the opening ceremony included Erasures’ Andy Bell, Jody Watley, Will and Grace’s Megan Mullally, and M-People’s Heather Small who entertained the crowds, along with 1 400 dancers and musicians. The athletes were sworn in at the opening, marking the start of the eight day event.

The city of Chicago has thrown its support behind the Games, with the mayor, Richard M. Daley, welcoming the participants at the ceremony. Banners promoting the event have been placed throughout the city’s streets, and, according to the organisers, many competitions are already sold out, with remaining tickets going fast. It is estimated that around $50 – $80 million will be spent in the city thanks to the Games.

The Games have scored significant corporate sponsorship to the tune of $13.5 million, including support from Ernst & Young, Absolut Vodka, Nike, Kraft, Merrill Lynch, Motorola, and America Airlines among others. The event is being broadcast on the new US gay TV channel, Logo, as well as on Chicago’s NBC 5 local channel.

The closing ceremony, set for July 22, will feature Cindy Lauper performing. Seven days later, Montreal, which was originally chosen as the host for this year’s Gay Games, will instead host the first rival Outgames.

The Outgames came about after a dispute between the Federation of Gay Games (who hold the rights to the Gay Games) and the organisers over the terms of hosting the event, leading Montreal to host its own games.

While many feared that hosting similar events so close to each other would be detrimental to the both competitions, according to reports, both games have attracted similar numbers of participants.

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