Olympic Homophobia: Why Are There So Few Openly Gay Athletes?

In the high-profile world of Olympic competition, only a small (but growing) number of gay athletes have publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation.

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Courtesy Sam Waterhouse

Karen Hultzer, an archer from South Africa, publicly acknowledged during the London Olympics that she is a lesbian

On Aug. 6, during the most dogged soccer match at the London Olympics, Megan Rapinoe blasted two shots past the Canadian goalie to help Team USA secure a spot in Thursday’s final. Even more impressive, however, may have been Rapinoe’s resolve when she came out as a lesbian just weeks before the Olympics. “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic,” she said in an interview with Out.com on July 5. “People want — they need — to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A.”

In the high-profile world of Olympic competition, Rapinoe is among a small but growing number of gay athletes who have publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation. According to Outsports, a media-watchdog and sports-news site, of the 14,690 athletes participating in the Olympic and Paralympic Games this year, only 23 are openly gay. That’s around 0.16%. Even so, it’s a big improvement over the 2004 Games in Athens, which counted just 11 out athletes. In Beijing in 2008 there were only 10.

(MORE: Out at the Top: Europe’s Gay Leaders)

Their reasons for keeping a low profile vary, but closeted Olympians share one thing in common: they have trained their entire lives to represent their countries at the Games. Coming out, they fear, could cause sponsors to pull out of deals, and negative stereotypes may leave coaches and teammates questioning their abilities. “The most important thing to every athlete is their position and standing,” says Blake Skjellerup, a gay speedskater who represented New Zealand at the 2010 Winter Olympics. “They wouldn’t want anything as trivial as their sexuality to jeopardize that.”

The organizers behind Pride House — “a welcoming space for all athletes, staff, spectators and friends” — hope to show that being gay and being competitive aren’t incompatible. To that end, they have held informal gatherings like a recent 5-km run, are staging an exhibition on gay athletes and provide a space for athletes and nonathletes alike to watch the Olympics. “We’re putting a little flag in the sand and saying that within this environment, which isn’t inclusive and welcoming, we are an inclusive and welcoming space,” says Louise Englefield, the founding director of Pride Sports, an LGBT sports-development and equality organization. “If that means that people realize there is an alternative, then great.”

(MOREOlympic Highlights in Photographs)

The inaugural Pride House at the Vancouver Games played a big role in Skjellerup’s coming out. Although he had told his family ahead of the Olympics, he had not contemplated coming out publicly. He sat at a Starbucks opposite the house before deciding to step inside. After strolling through a photo exhibition of gay athletes — including Olympic gold medalists like Greg Louganis and Matt Mitcham — he soon found himself telling staff members his secret. “It was quite a big thing, coming out to strangers,” he says. “I felt really good with myself after doing that.”

Coming out seems more daunting for male athletes. Of the 23 out Olympians this year, only four are men. “Constructions of masculinity within sport are incredibly rigid,” says Englefield, who adds that the “macho environment” entrenches homophobia. It’s a different story for gay women, she notes: “Lesbians who maybe don’t conform to heterosexual stereotypes of femininity can just get on with it and be themselves.”

No gay athlete, closeted or out, wants to hear homophobic slurs bandied about in the locker room. And yet having to fight against more than just your opponent may partly explain the success of openly gay sportsmen and sportswomen at the Olympics. “When you’re closeted, it’s quite hard on you mentally,” says Skjellerup. “But there is a lot of mental toughness that comes with being an athlete. For me, homophobic comments actually spear me on and encourage me more.”

He may not be alone. Outsports has identified 104 out athletes who have participated in Summer Games. More than half of them have won Olympic medals. Gay men and lesbians seem poised for similar success in London. Equestrian Carl Hester, as part of the British dressage team, became the first out athlete to win gold in this Olympics. Other notables include German Judith Arndt, who bagged a silver in cycling, and American Lisa Raymond, who walked off the tennis court with a bronze. Other likely medalists include Seimone Augustus, a star of the U.S. women’s basketball team; Rapinoe of the U.S. soccer squad; and four members of Holland’s field-hockey team.

But the biggest rewards have nothing to do with medals. In the week before Karen Hultzer, a 46-year-old archer from South Africa, competed at the Olympics, journalists began to chatter online that she might be gay. Although she had always lived her life openly among friends and family, she had never publicly acknowledged that she was a lesbian. That changed on July 30, shortly after she was eliminated from archery. “I am an archer, middle-aged and a lesbian,” she said in a statement. “I am also cranky before my first cup of coffee. None of these aspects define who I am, they are simply part of me.”

Hultzer doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer. But having visited Pride House and spoken with several journalists about her sexual orientation, it’s clear she sees the benefits of speaking up. “People aren’t out, and people don’t speak openly, so people don’t realize how many gay people there are,” she tells TIME. “They’re everybody. Your waitress at the bar, your nurse, the guy who drives your train.” And thanks to Hultzer, Skjellerup, Rapinoe and others, they’re your Olympians too.

(MORE: A Visual History of the Gay-Rights Movement)

44 comments
Luciano de Almeida Peruci
Luciano de Almeida Peruci

The question isn't if  "sexual preference" (sic) has public importance or not; If it's needed to prove their worth or not...

But, before, the question says about something more specific : We think, beforehand, the "normal" sexuality is heterosexual.

In fact, we (I mean, the society) don't think  "it doesn't matter", really; This is not true! Is that the important point, here. We still don't reach this "status"!

We live socially and I defend what really doesn't matter, they are the opinions taken separately, personnal opinions which don't consider this "socially". It's pathetic.

So it still necessary... Some persons reinforce their sexuality image - in the case, homosexuality. We must take over one "culture" as object of resistance.

Today is easy to say "we have no prejudices" but we need open ours mind to see it's not true in social environments.

(Forgive me my poor English)

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

It's today , why worry . There's always tomorrow .

Thomas
Thomas

That 23 out of 14,690 sporters are declared homosexuals is a VERY low figure from any point of view. How can anyone not acknowledge that? Those stats basically say: there are no gay top sporters. In a world were politicians, scientists, musicians, and artists are generally encouraged (and admired) for coming out of the closet, why should it be such a big deal for sporters?

davecross
davecross

What is this obsession with who sleeps with who?  Why do I need to know who is gay or straight or bi, or whatever?  I'm watching athletic competitions, not sexual antics.

robt55
robt55

I think we should apply some type of PC approach to US Olympic teams regardless of the outcome. After all, the rest of our entire society has been perverted by the endless diatribes proselyting equality at all costs.  Why not subject the Olympics to the same biased and distorted version of "reality".  Once that occurs maybe even the most die-hard among the self-serving, self-absorbed left will finally see how they have destroyed in a generation what has taken thousands of years to evolve normally and naturally.

jimmy kraktov
jimmy kraktov

"Why Are There So Few Openly Gay Athletes?"

Why would you be asking the question? Why would anyone else even care? Do gay people compete differently? Why don't you ask the athletes what color underwear they use? How about asking how many people taking part in the games wear false teeth? Why not ask them what their favorite sexual fantasy is? Who is their favorite movie star?

The answers? It's nobody's business but their's, and none of it has anything to do with the Olympics.

I just checked the top of the page to see if hadn't mistakenly connected to "National Enquirer" That rag is full of nonsense like this.

papasmurf9699
papasmurf9699

Who cares what an athlete's sexual orientation is...does it make the resulting performance any less inspiring???I think not.

DBritt
DBritt

 A lot of the responses here seem to ask variations of the question, "it's a personal thing, why talk about it?"  I think to answer that question you have to look to the athletes' motivation for coming out in the first place.  Rapinoe and Skjellerup, based on their stories, certainly consider it a risk to come out.  So why did they do it?  While I'm not gay, I have to imagine their decision is based on having grown up in a culture that makes it very difficult to be LGBT.  People who follow the news will certainly be familiar with the high suicide rate of homosexual teens, or even teens who aren't but are perceived to be.  These athletes are in a position to show children growing up under those circumstances that they can be successful and admired regardless of their sexuality.  They are taking a significant risk to do that.  Is that not a worthy reason for coming out and for reporting on the matter?  It seems heartless to conclude otherwise.

tommariner
tommariner

Now you've done it. There will be protests against London, NBC and past Olympic Champions. Either a certain percent of the athletes declare their preference for the same sex or we will stop these filthy games!

Grandma02
Grandma02

What the heck kind of a story is this ? Is your editor in chief out to lunch ?  As others have said in previous posts sexual preferences do not have to be publicized. I'll bet this writer will not eat at Chick-fil-A either. You have Henry and Clare Luce turning over in their graves.

Ali Von Goldberg
Ali Von Goldberg

It may be that Olympians focus their lives on sports achievement and little time on the politics of sexuality.  Like most people, they don't have the need to flaunt their sexuality to prove their worth.

Molly_Rn
Molly_Rn

Because the world is so prejudiced and nasty. Who would want the grief and what difference does it make anyway?

Leland Williams Jr.
Leland Williams Jr.

Real question is why the Lib Media  like Time Mag is so obsessed with gays in the culture?

fmondana
fmondana

The only reason this should be an issue is if discrimination is involved by the IOC. Each country has to deal with it their own way before then. Some will never use gay (as far as they know) athletes and some will.

I don't hear announcers during events saying "Here is John Smith, the straight swimmer from..." or "Jane Smith, the gay leader in the 200 meter...".

I have to think that there are many who simply don't care. Most fans can't even name an athletes spouse and they just don't care.

Hmmm, not caring what someone is. Quite a concept.

MohammadSchwartz
MohammadSchwartz

All the other ones just haven't come out of the closet yet.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Until sexual intercourse is made an Olympic event (and it arguably is the only thing that hasn't been proposed), what difference should it make to the public what an Olympic athlete's sexual preference may or may not be? It has no bearing on athletic performance, and it's a question the rest of us should not ask. It's no one's business unless the athlete chooses to make it everyone's business.

Vincent Lovece
Vincent Lovece

The reason is that most countries don't take very kindly to that sort of behavior. While the Western World may be (partially) changing (mostly in Europe, Canada, and possibly Australia/New Zealand), most of Asia and Africa has not budged an inch in their views, especially Islamic countries. 

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