Photo by J.A. Laub Photography
It was the summer of 1986 during the opening ceremonies of the second annual Bluegrass State Games, in part spawned as the state’s answer to the celebrated 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. On this day, spirited torchbearers ran a relay from Frankfort to Lexington, where the cauldron would be lit to start the Games. Brigid DeVries was there, and recently she recalled a bit of drama as the special moment neared: “We’re all sitting there at the [University of Kentucky] track—people from small towns like Nicholasville and Winchester. It was around dusk and [U.S. track and field gold-medal winning Olympian] Wilma Rudolph, dressed in a white warm-up outfit, came down that hill carrying the torch.”
According to DeVries, who served as an original BGSG board member and later Kentucky High School Athletic Association commissioner, the image of Rudolph was “incredible and inspiring to ones who never would have crossed paths with her and others brought to the Games.”
The BGSG was billed by the Lexington Herald-Leader at the time as “Kentucky’s own amateur sports competition … an Olympic-style event that gives athletes of all ages and skill levels an opportunity to demonstrate their talents in an atmosphere of friendly competition.” It was the brainchild of then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins, who saw the concept work in other states, and she threw her considerable influence behind it.
And though the inaugural 1985 Games offered only six sports—bowling, equestrian events, soccer, softball, tennis, and track and field events—it was a huge success by nearly all accounts. Upwards of 20,000 Kentuckians, ranging from children to senior citizens, actively participated in the competitions. The endeavor energized a host of Kentucky citizens who caught the spirit of duty and volunteerism and strived to see it succeed.
Dr. Robert Davis worked in Collins’ cabinet and was appointed the first Games board chairman. He remembered the hectic, yet invigorating, flurry of activity to get the BGSG up and running. “First thing we had to do was get a staff together, and we had all these people who were good organizers,” said Davis. About a dozen states with similar events were studied, and a workable plan for Kentucky was soon developed. Seed money was needed to get started, and the plan was to use largely private funds. “Bill Collins, the governor’s husband, and I went down to a Frankfort bank and signed our names for a $50,000 loan,” said Davis, with a grin, “and we would have been responsible [for paying it back] if it had failed … but we weren’t going to let it fail.”
Besides giving credit to the governor, Davis mentioned names such as Susan Feamster—the first executive director of the BGSG, respected for her organizational skills—and Steve Brooks and Ann Coffey who were crucial in jump-starting the operation. “People had to do their regular jobs first, and do the BGSG on the side,” he said. “They worked long hours.” The Kentucky National Guard played a big part, using expertise in crowd control and facilitating medical care during the Games. Individual sport commissioners coordinated competitions and recruited others to help. The support of the “Pacesetters,” an organized group of exercise walkers, mostly senior citizens, supplied a significant workforce.
A strong push toward reaching out to Kentucky corporations, including phone calls from Collins, brought such companies as Valvoline, CSX, Coca-Cola and South Central Bell on board financially. They brought their promotional expertise, including bringing celebrities to the events. In addition to Rudolph, baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, basketball stars Michael Jordan and Wes Unseld, and Olympians Bruce Jenner, Bob Beamon and Peter Vidmar made appearances in those early years. The Games afforded former Cincinnati Reds infielder and Lexington native Doug Flynn the opportunity to promote the “Champions Against Drugs” program to a sizable audience. The establishment of the BGSG—and its classy “game” aura—was a gift for a state that adores sports.
“Kentucky loves to compete,” said Collins. “This seemed a natural fit and a way to have all ages involved.”
Though the extremely elevated bar of participation set for the first year—high nationally compared with similar programs in other states—has not been sustained at that highest level during the last 29 years, the BGSG remains popular. From the initial six sports in 1985 and a jump to 15 in 1986, the Games in 2014 will number more than 30. Last year, some 16,000 competed after a drop-off to 12,000 several years ago. Competitions take place largely around the Lexington area but also are scheduled in outlying areas around the state.
The economic impact to the state, according to Terry Johnson of the Bluegrass Sports Commission (the BGSG is its signature event), is about $7 million a year. “And 85 percent of our budget is privately raised,” he said. “Sponsorships help keep our registration fees down. Subway restaurants, for example, invests a substantial amount of financial and marketing resources to the Games while also feeding hundreds of volunteers and staff.” Johnson added that Fruit of the Loom has defrayed much of the cost for shirts given to each participant.
Johnson emphasized the desire of the BGSG leadership to provide a “wholesome, family atmosphere, and we have a code of conduct we go by. Also, we work in close concert with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association [in order to strictly follow scholastic rules],” he said. There are many amateur “traveling team” participants, often including mixtures of athletes from different schools. The partnership of the KHSAA and the BGSG, in part, prepares referees for the regular school seasons, and, said Johnson, “helps participation in the BGSG.” And the events, he said, “would not happen without the Lexington Parks and Recreation Department. We use a lot of their facilities, their labor, and they help with putting out signage and banners.”
But primarily, the nearly three-decade staying power of the BGSG can be attributed to the way participants have embraced it.
Track participants Avital Schurr of LaGrange and Beverly Metcalf of Frankfort have competed since 1990. Schurr, 72, started four years after quitting a smoking habit, and the excitement of the BGSG inspired him to do even more. “I found myself training regularly for many other track meets around the state, the country and the world,” he said. Metcalf, 62, won the first Jean Wright Female Athlete Award for the BGSG and also has been an enthusiastic volunteer. “I would always tell people I couldn’t tell if I ‘worked’ between running or jumping or I ‘ran or jumped’ in between working,” she said. “That’s the wonderful spirit of the Games!” Schurr also has placed well in event competition, but he emphasized: “Winning is always secondary to participation, as most new participants find out once they enter.”
Stephen McCauley of Cynthiana fell in love with his future bride, Rebecca, at the soccer events some years back. “We kind of knew each other before,” said Stephen, “but I guess you could say our time at the BGSG kick-started our relationship.”
Winchester resident Lewis Willian has been the BGSG disc golf commissioner since 2009. He fell in love with the sport when his teenage son lured him into the game. “Not a treadmill kind of guy, I was totally mesmerized by disc golf,” he said, “and I walked 60 pounds off playing the game.” Though it is now sanctioned as a Professional Disc Golf Association X Tier event, suitable for serious players, Willian doesn’t want anyone to be intimidated about participating. “We meet beforehand and talk about the rules, and we try to make it a teaching event,” he said. “I try to put an experienced player in every group. And I expect hardcore players to be a little less hardcore in the BGSG.”
Junior Wright of Georgetown coached and was a sports commissioner for softball in the Games in the early years. “It’s like a get-together,” he said. Wright is not surprised at its long tenure, saying, “It’s something that the public buys into.”
Another participant from Winchester, Frank Walls, remarked that people play chess “for the love of the game” at the BGSG but also asserted a unique feature compared with other competitions: “Players like quietness so they can concentrate.” The town’s mayor, Ed Burtner, along with his wife Carolyn, took local youth soccer teams to the BGSG two decades ago. He recalled how the experience enabled team members “to make contacts and associations around the state.”
Brandon Jones, this year’s BGSG T-ball commissioner, was happy to see his son’s 5-year-olds T-ball team defeat a couple of 6-year-olds teams last year. He likes the atmosphere he sees watching children play T-ball. “All the families tend to band together, and my son Blake invites friends and relatives to come,” said Jones.
Fun, positive energy and a focus on bringing out the best in Kentucky’s citizenry are the hallmarks of the BGSG. This summer, as the 30th anniversary is celebrated, a tip of the hat can justifiably be sent toward those who have been involved, at all levels.
If you go …
The Bluegrass State Games
Martial arts and mountain biking, skateboarding and sailing, bowling and baseball—with more than 30 sports represented, a thrilling array of competitions are held throughout the summer months. A Bluegrass State Games season kickoff event will be held in conjunction with Lexington’s 4th of July Celebration. For details about the kickoff and individual sporting events, visit the Bluegrass State Games website.