By Stuart Miller-Davis
For the Ottawa Wolves, 2020 was supposed to be a year to be proud of. They were to be the first Canadian host of a tradition held biannually by the gay rugby community in memory of one of its beloved members.
The Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament (Bingham Cup), which pre-pandemic was to be held this past August, honours Mark Bingham.
Bingham was a two-time national rugby champion with the California Golden Bears. After his NCAA days, Bingham continued playing with the San Francisco Fog, a gay-and-inclusive rugby club. He was also involved in the founding of the Gotham Knights, a gay-and-inclusive team in New York City.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bingham boarded United Airlines Flight 93 travelling from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco. After terrorists took over the plane’s cockpit, Bingham was part of a group of passengers who hatched a plan to take back control from the hijackers. It’s believed that the passengers were able to breach the plane’s cockpit, causing it to crash in a field in Pennsylvania. The hijackers had veered the plane toward Washington, D.C., and are suspected to have been planning to crash it into the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. There were no survivors from the flight.
Bingham was killed at 31 years old. Every two years since 2002, gay rugby players have come together in his honour.
The Ottawa Wolves bid on the rights to host the Bingham Cup this year and won but will now be hosting the tournament in 2022 instead.
The Wolves themselves have only be around since 2008, when the club was founded by Jay Smidt and Carl Pilon. In 2013, the club became the first Canadian member organization of International Gay Rugby (IGR) to add a women’s team.
Since 2010 the Wolves have been travelling around the world to play in the Bingham Cup. It’s grown since their first appearance to become the world’s largest amateur rugby union tournament.
One Wolves highlight in the event came in Nashville in 2016, when they won the Hoagland Jug – named for Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland.
But more importantly the event has the ability to change lives, said former Wolves captain Jean-François Laberge, who has been to every Bingham Cup that the Wolves have participated in.
Laberge recalls the Sydney, Australia tournament in 2014, where marriage equality was a hot-button issue in the country at the time.
“Everybody (was) saying (same sex marriage was) never going to happen in Australia,” Laberge told the Sports Pages. “Then the Bingham Cup came and with it the enshrining in the four major sports in Australia that there is no discrimination against LGBTQ+. They all amended their sporting codes and that kind of started this massive social political pressure.”
Between 2004 and 2017 there were 22 unsuccessful attempts in Australia’s Parliament to legalize or recognize same-sex marriage. After almost two-thirds of Australians voted in a referendum in late 2017 in favour of same-sex marriage, the country passed a law redefining marriage as “a union of two people.”
Laberge, who works in Ottawa as a lawyer, has also been a driving force behind bringing the Bingham Cup to Ottawa as the president of the board behind the Wolves’ bid.
For him, being involved with Ottawa’s Bingham Cup bid presented an opportunity to give back to a community that he cares deeply for.
“This was kind of my last hurrah. Canada had never hosted, and I said, ‘This is going to be my gift back to my club, to the Ontario and Canadian rugby families and to the IGR family as well,” he said.
Laberge added that the inclusive nature of rugby, and in a wider way the inclusive environment of the Bingham Cup has allowed him and others a space to be themselves.
“For me, there was always a split in me where I felt I could be ‘athlete J-F’, or I could be ‘gay J-F’, but the athlete and gay J-F could never be one. That is what inclusive rugby is all about; seeing everybody being themselves 100 per cent… and not having to hide and having a blast of it and challenging themselves,” Laberge said.
When take-two of Ottawa’s attempt to host the Bingham Cup happens in 2022, Laberge hopes the near 2,200 participants from 65 countries that had originally planned to come in 2020 make it to Canada’s capital.
The event will also for the first time feature a “murderball” (wheelchair rugby) showcase. A legal conference is being planned with the University of Ottawa in tandem of the event, where the social and legal challenges that trans athletes face will be discussed.