World OutGames unravel hours before start, prompting fraud investigation

An international sporting event set to begin today in Miami is now the focus of a fraud investigation — and, for thousands of excited participants and spectators, including many Canadians, a source of major disappointment, too.

Organizers announced Friday that almost all of its 450 events were cancelled due to 'financial challenges'

International sporting event World OutGames has abruptly cancelled almost all of its events, just hours before it was set to begin Friday. (World OutGames)

An international sporting event set to begin in Miami Friday is now the focus of a fraud investigation — and, for thousands of excited participants and spectators, including many Canadians, a source of major disappointment, too.

Warren Cass had just stepped off the plane in Miami when he received an email from the organizers of the fourth annual World OutGames informing him that virtually all of its roughly 450 events — with the exception of aquatics, country western dance and soccer — had been cancelled, just hours before they were set to begin.

The Toronto athlete couldn't believe it. 

"I was shocked. People have paid registration fees," he said. "There are people literally coming from all over the world that have been training for this for years ... and made a very large financial commitment to as well."

A water polo player, Cass is one of the few who will compete. 

'Money I didn't need to spend'

CBC Toronto has confirmed the Miami Beach Police Department and Florida State Attorney's Office have opened a joint fraud investigation into the games.

The investigation follows an alleged "potential misappropriation of funds," states a release from the City of Miami Beach, which said it was "deeply concerned" about the cancellations.

The World OutGames are one of the largest high-profile competitions for LGBT athletes. They branched out from the Gay Games after a disagreement between organizers a decade ago, leading to the first World OutGames being staged in Montreal in 2006. The Gay Games were held that year in Chicago.

At his Mississauga home, Vincent Chan received the same note as Cass did, citing financial challenges as the reason for the cancellation.

Vincent Chan spent all of Thursday packing ahead of his trip to Miami where he was supposed to be competing in an international badminton tournament. (CBC)

Chan just spent the day packing for the games, which he'd registered for back in January. His partner had registered too. Both had taken time off work and put in an estimated $2,500 in registration fees, airfare and hotel costs — all for naught, with the games now cancelled.

"All of that is money I didn't need to spend," the badminton athlete said. "It's just super irresponsible."

There's been no word about compensation, nor any word on why participants weren't told earlier. CBC Toronto reached out to the games' organizers Friday afternoon, but has yet to receive a response.

'A gay man and an athlete'

For Chan, who said he's played badminton for about 35 years, it was supposed to be a chance to compete at a world level.

Paulo Senra participated in the games for the very first time in 2006.

"At that time I wasn't even out to any of my friends and family," the soccer player said from Toronto. "That was the first time I was able to see myself as a gay man and an athlete. And after those games, I actually came out."

Senra recalled walking into the arena in Montreal to an audience of some 40,000 people — and an unforgettable feeling of acceptance.

Paulo Senra participated in the very first World OutGames in Montreal in 2006. He says he decided to come out to his friends and family after the event, finally being able to see himself as both a gay man and an athlete. (CBC)

"It was just a wonderful experience, a really safe space ... kind of saying, 'You're OK as a human being.'"

That's the kind of acceptance Chan says he was hoping to experience.

No word on compensation

"A lot of LGBT people do not play sports because of the homophobia that's involved. It's really nice to be able to participate in sport amongst people where you don't have to fear persecution or people looking at you funny … it's really the camaraderie," he said. 

"I'm sorry that it's not going to happen — and angry as well."

With his flight and hotel booked, cancelling his trip now isn't an option for Chan. He and his partner are set to head to Miami regardless, and are going to try to make the best of their trip.

But he and many others are waiting for the organizers to say whether they'll be compensated for their wasted money.

Cass thinks that's only fair.

"Of course people should get their money back for this," he said. "You pay a registration fee for an event [that] you're promised to participate in and then the organizers take your fee and don't host the event? That's textbook breach of contract."

And another LGBT-oriented competition is on the horizon next year. The Gay Games are set to take place in Paris in 2018.

But Chan won't be attending.

"I just don't have the time and the financial wherewithal to be able to afford that after this," he said. "This was my shot at it and I'll just have to wait another four years again or whenever it's going to happen."

If it happens at all.

'They're ditching us last minute'

"Right now a lot of people feel that this is just a big scam … And I don't know if this organization's going to be around the next time ... because of it," Chan said. 

We look forward to seeing you in Miami the place WHERE EVERYTHING CHANGES!- World OutGames registration page

In the meantime, Montreal badminton player Matthew VonBornhoft, who is also in Miami for the games, says some players have resorted to trying to arrange their own events.

"Since they're ditching us last minute, we're trying to organize ourselves," he told CBC Toronto by phone.

For now, Cass said he hopes the organizers will take steps to salvage the games and reach out to all those who had been getting set to compete. So far, he and others say, the only communication they've had is the one that came hours ago, letting them know the games were cancelled. 

"It's more than just a vacation, it's also more than just the money," he said. "You feel like you're something bigger than you, something international, something that really reaches across borders and unites people."

On the website for the World OutGames, the registration page remained active Friday night.

"The Board and staff of World OutGames Miami 2017 thank you for supporting this event," it reads. "We look forward to seeing you in Miami the place WHERE EVERYTHING CHANGES!"

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie, Devin Heroux