VANCOUVER -- The third and biggest Gay Games have attracted more than 7,100 athletes from 27 countries, including more than 5,000 from the United States, to Canada's largest west coast city this week. And despite a few anti-gay incidents, the event has become a "tremendous accomplishment for gays . . . around the world," according to one of the games' senior directors.

Betty Baxter, a former coach of Canada's national volleyball team, said Gay Games III demonstrates that "gays are ready to step out and say who they are. The participation by hundreds of European gay and lesbian athletes shows that this has become an international event, not just a North American competition."

The Vancouver Games mark the first time the competition has been held outside San Francisco. The idea originated 10 years ago with Tom Waddell, a former U.S. Olympic decathlete. Waddell wanted a sporting event in which any person could attempt any event regardless of race, age, ability, gender or sexual orientation. Wherever possible, men and women compete together. That means participants are not required to compete in any qualifying races before these games.

"The Gay Games are so named as the event was originally conceived as a celebration for this minority group -- many members of which have experienced exclusion because of their sexual orientation during their earlier athletic involvements," Waddell said before the first games.

Waddell -- who died of AIDS in 1987 -- originally called it the Gay Olympic Games. But shortly before the first games in San Francisco in 1982, the U.S. Olympic Committee obtained an injunction barring organizers from using the word "Olympic."

The first games attracted 1,300 athletes in 14 sports. Four years later, the games attracted 3,500 athletes in San Francisco. Vancouver organizers originally predicted 5,000 athletes for these games but that eventually grew to 7,100.

There are 30 events, ranging from equestrian and bowling to swimming and a marathon, at more than 50 venues around the city.

In some events, the competition is of exceptional quality. Earlier this week, a 50-year-old California swimmer from West Hollywood Aquatics Swim Club set world records for the 50-54 age category in the 50- and 100-meter butterfly.

But despite the prowess demonstrated by some U.S. teams in the pool, and the participation of some elite Canadian athletes competing under pseudonyms, the philosophy behind the games stresses participation rather than competition.

Robert Stofferson, 29, team captain of the 35-member D.C. Aquatics Club of Washington, said the highlight for his team was winning gold medals in the men's 200-meter freestyle and 200 individual medley relays.

"Coming to the games is a culmination of more than a year of intense dedication to swimming. Most of us have been practicing one hour a day for months to get ready for this event," said Stofferson, from Northwest Washington. "It's just wonderful to travel thousands of miles to another country and new city and meet more than seven thousand athletes from all over the world."

Although Vancouver has Canada's largest English-speaking gay community after Toronto, the influx of the athletes and an estimated 5,000 visitors and artists taking part in the festival, has not gone without protests.

Last November a church took out full page ads in the two city daily newspapers that evoked selected biblical phrases to condemn homosexuality and forbid the games from taking place.

Since then, there have been several instances of anti-gay graffiti on games venues and on Monday, a gay man from Seattle had a Mace-like substance sprayed in his eyes by a young male in the heart of the city's gay neighborhood.

But Stofferson said most Vancouver residents have been "most hospitable. They have opened their arms and made it very comfortable for us."

Vancouver police spokesman Constable Bob Cooper said no other anti-gay incidents have occurred since Celebration '90 -- the official name that includes Gay Games III and the cultural festival -- began last Saturday. "We have not been anticipating any major problems at all. We feel that {Celebration '90} will be a really successful event," he said.

Gay Games III ends Saturday, when more than 20,000 participants are expected to take part in closing ceremonies in Vancouver's covered sports stadium.