Cleveland hosts International Gay Games in same-sex marriage battleground state
A team performs in the freestyle competition of the waterballet event at the Gay Games in Cologne on Aug. 6, 2010. [AFP]

Thousands of athletes and fans are converging on Cleveland on Saturday for the opening ceremonies of the 9th Gay Games, bringing the international event to a state that has become a key battleground for gay marriage rights.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati this week heard arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky. Gay marriage supporters have seen a series of legal victories around the country since the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional last year.

Cleveland was selected in 2009 over Boston, Washington and other large U.S. cities to host the games, held every four years since they debuted in 1982 in San Francisco.

Games co-chairman Steve Sokany said he believes the selection of the Midwestern city was about changing hearts and minds and it has received unprecedented corporate sponsorship.

"The tide is turning and I think these games can have a tremendous impact," Sokany said in an interview. "We are trying to change stereotypes."

Public opinion in Ohio on gay rights has shifted over the past decade, reflecting similar changes in other parts of the country. Ohio voters adopted the gay marriage ban in 2004, but recent polls show a majority of Ohio voters support allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Cleveland-based sponsors of the games include the United Church of Christ, Sherwin-Williams paint company, the Cleveland Clinic and hundreds of small businesses.

Organizers expect about 25,000 athletes, spectators and volunteers to gather for the games in Cleveland and nearby Akron over the next eight days, injecting an estimated $50 million into the local economy.

The competitions include a triathlon and a marathon, as well as softball, volleyball, darts, bowling and cheering. Figure skating is a crowd favorite, according to organizers.

The Games feature a wide variety of athletes - young and old, male and female and both gay and straight.

Denise Sebastian, 64, of Sydney, Australia, who will bowl in the upcoming games, was once asked by another woman if straight athletes could compete.

"I told her we haven't perfected the gay test so I think you can get by," Sebastian said.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Eric Beech)