By Andrew Bowen
As the shot rang out in the stadium, three men took off in the first heat of the 200 meter qualifiers, age group 45 to 49, at the eighth quadrennial Gay Games in Cologne. Seconds after the start, James had already taken the lead and he eventually crossed the finish line well ahead of his opponents.
"He is our personal Usain Bolt in Cologne, 29.05 seconds," shouted the announcer to a cheering audience.
James, whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity, is from Jamaica, the sprinting capital of the world. He later told Deutsche Welle it was his fastest 200-meter time ever.
James started doing track and field about 10 years ago when his cholesterol and blood pressure were causing health problems. Now well into his 40s, he said he likes the challenges track presents.
"You're always testing yourself, you're always trying to do better or trying to maintain the level that you're at," he said. "So it's a good way to measure your progress and your fitness and how well you're aging."
The Gay Games began in 1982 and are meant to provide a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes to compete while still being open about their sexual and gender identities.
The event has faced criticism and doubt from some within the gay community, who question whether a separate sporting event made for gay athletes is necessary. Even James admitted that when he first heard of the Gay Games he was apprehensive about the idea.
"But what I got to realize is that it's a game that pretty much allows everybody to be themselves," he said. "I know of other athletes who actually run the Gay Games who are not necessarily gay. But they are just open-minded and in it for the sport."
Asked what the significance of the Gay Games was for places like Jamaica, James said they present a positive, healthy image of gay culture that goes against the negative stereotypes that are the cause of much of the homophobia in the world.
"The Gay Games does give gay athletes a chance to show everyone that it's not just about partying, sex, drugs and that kind of thing," he said. "They can be serious athletes. They can compete and they can be as professional as straight athletes."
Jamaica is internationally infamous for being one of the most homophobic places on earth. Sex between men is still punishable by law, and human rights groups say the common occurrence of hate crimes against gays are tacitly tolerated by the authorities.
James said few people in Jamaica know he is gay, and no one knows that he was in Cologne to participate in the Gay Games.
"It's not that bad if you're careful, if you're discreet," he said. "But certainly if it's thrown out there then there's risk of violence against gays."
Even human rights groups in Jamaica shy away from gay issues, James said, meaning gay men and lesbians have no one to turn to when they experience violence or discrimination.
"It's certainly something that is growing in the culture, I don't think there's anything on the horizon to say that it will get any better," he said. "I think international groups or human rights groups should look into assisting where they can. I think we need help."