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Olympic countdown: Gay heroes in Speedos

Will we see openly gay and lesbian athletes competing at the 2012 London Olympics?
Australian swimmer Daniel Kowalski - gay role model for young athletes.

Although the Olympic charter commits the International Olympic Committee: 'To act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement’; and 'To encourage and support the development of sport for all’, it is widely documented that gay men and lesbians are grossly under-represented at this elite level (it is believed that at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, only 0.1% of athletes were openly gay or lesbian).

For the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG), diversity and inclusion in every aspect of the games is a key focus. While LOCOG can clearly demonstrate that they have recruited a diverse workforce and attracted a diverse army of volunteers (with gays and lesbians strongly represented), one area that LOCOG has done little to influence is the diversity profile of the athletes that are competing.

I asked LOCOG’s head of diversity and inclusion, Stephen Frost if he is surprised that there’s so few openly gay and lesbian athletes competing at Olympic level. Frost, interestingly, comes at this from a gay-friendly perspective as he was previously a senior member of the campaign team at Stonewall, the UK's leading lesbian, gay and bisexual rights organization.

Frost says: ‘It’s an issue for the sports and the IOC [International Olympic Commission], but the culture that we’re creating for London 2012 is supportive and inclusive. Athletes will see our diversity initiatives and this should reassure them and hopefully they will feel comfortable to be themselves.’

Aquatics is one of the few sports at Olympic level that seem to be getting this right and has a strong history of celebrating openly gay champions - from Greg Louganis (US diver), to Daniel Kowalski (Australian swimmer) to Matthew Mitcham (Australian diver and current Olympic champion).

I spoke with David Sparkes, the chief executive of the UK’s Amateur Swimming Association (ASA). The ASA has recently signed a charter to tackle homophobia in sport.

Sparkes confirms that the UK’s governing body for aquatics sports is ‘...on a journey to address equality and diversity in swimming. We have been working on this seriously since 2002 and in recent years our development programme has been targeted at addressing under representation throughout our sport, in particular participation in swimming, clubs, coaching, officials and volunteering.’

This combination of a supportive governing body; comprehensive training and development programmes at every level of the sport; plus strong role models at elite level is a key foundation for encouraging more young people to get involved in the sport.

In addition, the nature of aquatics sports (particularly swimming or diving) means that in many ways this is a ‘safe’ sport for young gays and lesbians - requiring individual focus and never having to share too much of yourself with team-mates at a time of life when you’re likely to still be working out who you are.

So where will our gay and lesbian Olympic heroes of the future come from? It’s pretty likely that you’ll see them stepping out in a Speedo in the not too distant future. Here are three gay Olympic heroes, two past, one present:

Profile: Greg Louganis, US diver

Louganis made his Olympic diving debut in the 1976 games in Montreal and went on to win his first world title in 1978. Although hot favourite to win gold in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the US boycott (in protest at the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan) prevented him from participating.

Back in Olympic competition in the 1984 games in Los Angeles, Louganis won gold medals in both the springboard and platform events. One of the most memorable Olympic moments involved Louganis at the 1988 Seoul games where he suffered concussion after dramatically hitting his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds. Despite his injury, Louganis went on to win gold in the springboard and again in the platform events.

He no longer competes but in 2010 he returned to diving as a mentor. He said he had stayed out of the sport for years as homophobia had made him feel unwelcome.

Profile: Daniel Kowalski, Australian swimmer

Kowalski competed in the Olympic Games in 200m, 400m and 1,500m individual freestyle events and in the 4x200m freestyle relay. At the 1996 games in Atlanta, he was the first man in 92 years to earn medals in all of the 200m, 400m and 1,500m freestyle events.

He retired from diving in 2002 and in 2010 Kowalski announced that he is gay, saying: ‘I felt really compelled to do it because it's very tough to live a closeted existence’.

Profile: Matthew Mitcham, Australian diver

After winning gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Mitcham is the current Olympic champion in the 10m platform, having received the highest single-dive score in Olympic history for that winning diving.

He came out in 2008, just before Beijing, following in the footsteps of Mathew Helm, another Australian Olympic diver who had come out in 2004.

Mitcham is the first Australian male to win an Olympic gold medal in diving since 1924. Mitcham is looking to defend his title at the London 2012 games but will face stiff opposition from the Chinese team who made a clean sweep of all gold medals at the FINA Diving World Cup held in London in February 2012. 

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