The acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, songs from musical stars such as k.d. Lang and a little politics officially kicked off the 1st World Outgames in Montreal's Olympic stadium.

Some 12,000 participants from over 100 countries are taking part in 35 athletic events that run until Aug. 5, but with disciplines that include bridge, ice hockey and dragon boat regatta, in addition to swimming, basketball and track and field, these is not your ordinary sports competition.

The events are not exclusive to gays and any records set during competition will stand, but organizers say it is more about mass participation than breaking records.

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Some 30,000 loud spectators attended the opening ceremonies late Saturday night, dancing to club diva Martha Wash's rendition of "It's Raining Men", hooting as the muscular men of Cirque du Soleil interpreted a balancing act called "Hand in Hand" and cheering as Canadian Olympian Mark Tewksbury and tennis champion Martina Navratilova read excerpts from a new declaration calling for the recognition of universal gay rights.

"Long live liberty in diversity," they both yelled to a cheering crowd. "I remember a time when I swam at the Olympics and felt all alone," said Tewksbury, who only made his sexual orientation public after he quit competition, fearing discrimination. "I don't feel that way anymore."

The sports competitions are part of a greater gathering that includes an international conference on gay and lesbian rights to promote "social change through sports."

The rights conference, held July 26 to 29, was launched in the presence of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, and included some 1,600 participants in over 200 workshops. The event in the drafting of the Montreal Declaration which calls from protection against gay bashing and promotes freedom of expression and will be submitted to the United Nations.

Participants from countries where being gay is a criminal offense made a special entrance Saturday night to loud cheers and ovations.

"I know some of you are from nations in which one's sexual orientation could lead to prison sentence or even death," said Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay. "Your presence encourages us to continue to work for a better world."

The crowd however shouted down a federal minister to protest the absence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the games. His conservative government is also seeking to review Canada's gay marriage legislation. Canada legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last year under another government.

The Outgames come on the heels of the seventh Gay Games in Chicago, which Montreal was originally slated to host but turned down after a dispute by organizers who went on to stage their own games.

While the Outgames have roughly the same number of events and participants as the Chicago gay games, nearly twice as many countries are participating.

"There are so many countries in the world where being gay is not only punishable by justice but punishable by death," Navratilova said during a visit at Montreal's city hall. "We're worried about equal rights as a same-sex couple in America, where in other countries people are worried about staying alive because they're gay."

Tewksbury says correspondence with gays in countries such as Nigeria had to be made in complete confidentiality by fear participants' lives would be in jeopardy.

Coming on the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Olympics, the Outgames are the largest athletic events the city has hosted since.

The Outgames conclude with a closing ceremony at Olympic stadium on Aug. 5 featuring a performance by Liza Minnelli.

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