Matthew Mitcham, Australian Olympic diver and London 2012 Olympics participant, is obviously a great athlete. He is also a homosexual male. What effect do these facts have on each other? Probably more than you think.
The relationship between the sports world and the gay athletes who inhabit it remains ambiguous. The majority of the 23 openly gay athletes who participated in this year’s summer Olympics were female. In fact, only three male Olympian athletes came out of the closet, a suspiciously low number compared to the total amount of competing athletes (eleven thousand). Could this be due to the old stereotypes—that lesbians are tough, while gay men are not (which might make it easier for a female in sports to come out)?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact analysis of sexuality in sports. But should we, as spectators to their game, care at all? South African archer Karen Kultzer seems to think not.
“I am an archer, middle aged and a lesbian. I am also cranky before my first cup of coffee. None of these aspects define who I am,” she told OutSports.com. Kultzer has the right to assert that her sexuality doesn’t define her. Whether it affects her game is another question.
Many other Olympic gay athletes spoke out about the impacting withholding their sexuality had on their performance. For some athletes, keeping one’s sexuality a secret could weigh them down in an unnecessary way.
Jim Buzinski, co-founder of OutSports.com, holds this view. “Sports is still the final closet in society,” he told the Associated Press. While in this writer’s view, sports is not the final closet, there does seem to be a particular pressure on sports to present an image of heterosexuality that in this day and age does not make sense. The sport itself will remain the same, regardless of the sexual preference of the athletes who engage in it.
The support to come out is there: London games organizers were encouraging of LGBTQ volunteers and even sanctioned an official games rainbow pin. With all this official support, why does sexual orientation still seem to be an issue for athletes? There are possible reasons: sponsors are one. The fear of losing commercial endorsements is associated with coming out of the closet. Though sponsors likely wouldn’t admit that they would drop an athlete because of their sexual orientation, few athletes want to take that risk.
Being gay is no reason to be ashamed. However, by failing to speak out openly, athletes could be making this implication. Athletes are a different type of celebrity and have a unique public image. But does that mean that the LGBTQ society doesn’t need their support?
If uncertainty is the prevailing attitude in a welcoming environment, what will happen when the Games move to Russia, known for its rampant homophobia, in 2014? Debates are currently raging over the abolition of the Pride House in Russia, when it was available in the Vancouver and London Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has chosen not to get involved. A stronger LGBTQ community within the sports world could have prevented this from even being an option.
Sexuality may not define athletes, as Kultzer asserts. But by keeping quiet and allowing homophobia to continue, athletes may unknowingly be defining sexuality in sports.