Imagine yourself a new Olympic medallist, your heart racing, the crowd
cheering, bowing slightly to receive your prize for the fastest run, the
strongest lift, or the highest leap. With millions watching, do you wave,
smile, and then unleash your rainbow flag, asks OutUK correspondent Jim
If you want to become the next sponsored celebrity jock on a cereal box,
probably not. More often, gay and lesbian Olympic athletes - like swimmers Mark
Tewksbury and Bruce Hayes, diver Greg Louganis, and rower Holly
Metcalf - have come out after winning those all-important medals.
Canadian gold medallist Mark Tewksbury.
Metcalf now coaches, as does California swimmer Dan Veatch, who competed in
backstroke at 1988's Seoul Olympics, when, Veatch says, "I was 23, and had
not dealt with my sexuality yet. And there was much greater pressure at the
trials than at the Olympics. You have to finish first or second to represent
the United States. But once you're [at the Olympics], your goals change from
actually competing, to making finals, to winning a medal."
Veatch admires other gay athletes (he won nine medals at the 1998 Gay Games
V); but as for coming out at the Olympic level, "I don't know what it would
be like now. It was more of a nonissue at that point in my life. The media,
and recent legislation, have come far in 20 years, so it's easier for
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, almost 20 gay and lesbian competitors were
out, but received minor attention limited mostly to
the gay media.
Convincing even the least famous of sports celebrities to "officially" come
out has never been easy. Even straight athletes who comment on rumours are
sometimes thought to be gay. Those who pose shirtless or who model underwear
attract speculation - possibly deserved - from gay fans.
But the only practical way for progress to be made is by nurturing an
environment of equality from the ground up.
At a recent panel organized at San Francisco's Washington High School, I
spoke, along with Bay Area gay and lesbian athletes and coaches, about our
experiences. This empowering Gay Day would be controversial anywhere else,
but the school is an exception - it even has a view of the Golden Gate
Chuck Louden, a coach for an international school, told of his coming out as
a track coach. It was his honesty and persistence that overcame any
homophobia and led to a tolerant environment. "I try to be the coach I never
had," he said.
Since many Olympic athletes train in college programmes, how long before such
change affects their lives? Despite the gossipy news of Durex giving out
about 50 condoms per athlete in Athens, the atmosphere in the city, unlike
in ancient times, seems far less romantic.
A Mexican swimmer trains in the Athens 2004 Olympic pool.
Hundreds of military guards have been hired to provide security at the
event. A bombing earlier this year in Athens - and a recent power failure -
further showed the city's problems as host. The BBC reported that more than
two dozen workers died in the hasty rush to complete facilities.
The Olympic Games haven't been gay-friendly in, well, centuries. Its
contestants may become heroes to specific communities. However, most
athletes undergo years training not just for their country, but for their
own glory, an obsessive personal goal to be the best, and, of course,
lucrative sponsorship deals. Until gay and gay-friendly corporations offer
the same benefits as Nike or Adidas, this may take a while.
Look closer to home for heroes, where future Olympians learn, and gay and
lesbian coaches can teach them.