If you are to believe Wikipedia of the 11,028 athletes that competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were only eleven athletes that were openly gay. That’s about 0.1%.
While there is no guarantee that representation of gays and lesbians at Olympic level will have increased by the time the 2012 Olympics in London roll around, one athlete that we can look forward to seeing in action is openly gay diver Matthew Mitcham from Australia.
Having begun his sporting career as a trampolinist, in 2002 Mitcham switched to diving and was soon competing internationally.
It was at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that Mitcham captured the public’s imagination – winning the gold medal for the 10m Platform event. Mitcham’s final dive in the event was awarded a score of 112.10, the highest single-dive score in Olympic history.
Mitcham had spoken publicly about his sexuality to the Sydney Morning Herald as part of their pre-games profile of Olympic hopefuls. Only 20 at the time, he also shared his battles with depression that had seen him take a break from the sport in his teenage years after physical and emotional burn-out: ‘It was a break for me to explore myself and get familiar with who I really was and to be happy with who I really was. Just being a happier person really radiates into other areas of your life.’
As a country that prides itself on punching above its weight when it comes to sport, Australian athletes that return home with Olympic gold are generally held in the highest esteem. Mitcham was no exception – as Mike Tancred, Media Director with the Australian Olympic Committee, confirms: ‘All Australians, not just the gay community, have marveled at the athletic ability of Matthew Mitcham and his gold medal triumph at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.’
Indeed Mitcham’s medal was celebrated by Australia Post issuing a postage stamp in his honour.
As one of a handful of openly gay professional sports people, Mitcham is now widely acknowledged a gay sporting icon – something he has actively embraced through involvement in the Sydney Mardi Gras, Melbourne’s Midsumma festival and his role as an ambassador for the Gay Games. As the face of swimwear maker Funky Trunks, he also regularly features in smart and sexy advertising campaigns placed in gay publications around the world.
However Mitcham’s diving form since Beijing has been a little patchy and he has recently had to work through an abdominals injury, but as we draw closer to London 2012 things are heading in the right direction – he won the Australian 10 meter platform title in December 2011 and is now immersed in a serious training regime with his sights firmly set on retaining his Olympic gold.
As you would expect, Australia is taking the 2012 Olympics very seriously. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) have announced three goals for the games: to be in the top five of overall and gold medals, to get medals in 14 disciplines and to beat Britain at home.
The AOC is publicly backing Mitcham as one of its strongest gold medal prospects, and he features prominently in their promotion of Australia’s Olympic aspirations. Mike Tancred, Media Director with the AOC explains why: ‘Matthew is a fantastic role model and ambassador for his sport and Australia. We are particularly proud of Matthew because he came up through the Australian Youth Olympic Festival, and he continues to support that event and encourage young athletes.’
For a country that has a mixed record on diversity and equality, Mitcham - attractive, intelligent and articulate, is a PR dream. While homosexuality remains a criminal offence in a substantial number of the 204 nations that will be competing in London, for the AOC’s Tancred, Mitcham’s success demonstrates that: ‘One of the great things about the Olympic Games is that it transcends all boundaries. The athletes of the world gather in the Village and do not worry about the colour of one’s skin, their religion, their politics and certainly not their sexuality. All those issues are forgotten.’
In what promises to be one of the highlights of the London Olympics, Mitcham will be battling it out with Great Britain’s Tom Daley for the 2012 Olympic Title for the 10m platform event. Responding to fans’ queries on Twitter recently, Mitcham cheekily declared that he ‘could easily take [Daley] if it was a dance-off, but a dive-off is going to be interesting!’
Our first chance to assess how this battle will play out, and whether Mitcham can once again be our golden boy, will be at the Diving World Cup which will be held in London’s Olympic Aquatic Centre on 20 to 26 February 2012. Tickets for this event have already sold out – I’m tipping that there will be a lot of Matthew Mitcham fans there to cheer him on.
Watch an interview with Mitcham (shot prior to the last Olympics) and see him in action here: