Imagine if you were the most talented athlete in your town, your college, your country. You could qualify for the Olympics, but you have fathered a child, which in this alternate reality disqualifies you as an athlete. So you hide the fact that you have a child, for decades, until after your competing days are over.
Imagine you are excessively tall, as a sprinter. You win race after race, but as talk about your future Olympic performance rises, an athlete from another country complains about unfairness. The IOC passes a rule that limits the height of sprinters so that no one can take advantage.
Imagine that you are a male diver who competes with grace and stamina unparalleled among your peers. You started ballet with your sisters at age three, just so your parents didn’t have to drive you to a separate day care, but you thrived. Now, your dance background has helped you excel at your sport. However, because of your fondness for pastel, others begin questioning your gender, and competitors claim you might have hyperfemigenism, which would give you a competitive advantage. The IOC subjects you to invasive medical screening, then decrees that you must take hormones, despite any evidence that hyperfemigenism is an advantage.
Welcome to being an LGBTQ athlete.
Hiding Your Whole Self
These scenarios may sound farfetched, but gay athletes compete in a sporting environment that is unwelcome at best and, at worst, hostile, invasive of privacy, or criminalized. The first few athletes whose sexuality was revealed faced insults, rumors, death threats, and even worse.
For example, Otto Peltzer, a German runner holding world records in the sprints, competed in the Games of 1928 and 1932. However, when the Games came to Berlin in 1936, instead of running for the Fatherland, he was arrested for being gay and sent to the Camps. Or consider Stella Walsh, a Polish-American who won sprinting gold and silver. When she was murdered in an Ohio parking lot 40 years later, the press learned that she was intersex (had characteristics of both genders). Instead of lamenting her tragic death, editorials suggested her medals be stripped. It’s no wonder that athletes for decades kept their private life hidden.
In the 1980s, the negative consequences for gay athletes intensified with HIV/AIDS. When people joked publicly that gay stood for “got AIDS yet?” they made it clear that being gay was a death sentence. It’s no wonder that diver Greg Louganis hid his HIV status for seven years after winning back-to-back double golds. When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, his popularity helped shift attitudes about the disease. Yet when he planned to take part in Barcelona 1992 with the Dream Team, there were absurd and uninformed suggestions that Johnson might infect other players with a particularly aggressive post up maneuver.
What’s the Big Deal?
One old argument is that the LGBTQ athlete should focus on their sport, rather than their personal life. Why say anything about it, when it’s just going to be a distraction? Just compete and shut up. My response is to suggest you look up a photo of decathlete Ashton Eaton. Half the photos are of Ashton with his wife, Brianna, also an Olympic medalist. Athletes are also people who have families. For an athlete to be unable to go into the stands and hug their husband or wife after a win is a kind of discrimination. That was why it was a joy in the 2016 Rio Beach Volleyball tournament when Brazillian Larissa Franca was shown giving her wife a big kiss after advancing to the semifinals.
The other big disadvantage for gay athletes is loss of sponsorships. When openly gay Australian diver Matthew Mitcham won a gold medal in 2008 Beijing, he was lauded by the country. But at home, it was a different story. He couldn’t get the sponsorship deals that straight divers were getting. On executive said, “If [we] have a choice between Mitcham and a straight diver, gold-winning athlete, most companies would probably go with the straight one.” Greg Louganis could have told him so.
Up until very recently, homosexuality was also illegal in many countries (still is, in 73 of them). Athletes could be jailed, in theory. Even if their country supported them in competitions, athletes often had to sign a morality clause. When Canadian Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury wanted to come out in 1992, his agent warned him not to ever mention it again. He was a highly-sought, highly-paid motivational speaker who agonized between living a lie and his career. Ultimately, he came out when a sponsor cancelled a lucrative tour because closeted Tewksbury still just seemed “too gay.”
Given the hostile environment, very few athletes are public about their LGBTQ status while competing. Many come out years later or after the bulk of their Olympic career is over. The most recent disclosure of Kerron Clement, gold medalist in the 400 m hurdles at Rio, marks him as the first Track and Field athlete to be gay in public. But he did it seventeen years into his track career.
My new favorite athlete of the week has to be Robert Dover, who I did not know until today was the first openly gay Olympian. Dover won four bronze medals for Team USA in Dressage (yes, it’s a valid sport, see letter “E” for Equestrian). He came out in 1988, even during the middle of the AIDS hysteria and media frenzy over Billie Jean and Martina. He was simply matter of fact about it: I’m the token Jewish gay boy on the U.S. Olympic team. It likely attracted less attention because it was dressage, but all the more reason to help open the closet door for others.
The most decorated openly LGBTQ athlete today has to be speed skater Irene Wüst of the Netherlands. Wüst has eleven Olympic medals–five gold–and was the highest medal winner in the entire 2014 Sochi Games. Most of her medals were won in the three Games after she revealed that she had a girlfriend. Still, she has been irritated on the constant focus on her sexuality rather than her athletics, saying: “You are not asking [ Dutch skater] Sven Kramer about how his relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either.”
Some “out and proud” sites have started keeping lists of LGBTQ athletes, with the list having more than a few names in 2008 and getting longer every year. It’s phenomenal that winning athletes like Adam Rippon and Megan Rapinoe have even used their visibility and success as a platform to take on their critics and to advocate for fairness. But there’s still one area where opinion and prejudice–prejudging–still looms large over sport, and that’s the subject of gender testing.
The Unfair Advantage Argument
I should note that my own views on the topic of transgender or intersex athletes in sport is evolving. If my expertise (or lack thereof) on the topic wades into ignorance, forgive me. I myself long took it for granted that the Olympics should compete on a level playing field, and that any athlete with something “extra,” such as extra male hormones, would have an unfair advantage over others. However, that argument is wrong on several fronts.
First off, when athletes have body types that give them an advantage, the Olympics have not banned them but embraced them. Usain Bolt has been able to dominate in the sprints–in part–because he has legs longer than other people. He doesn’t have to take as many strides. Michael Phelps (as German swimmer Michael Gross before him) has unusually long arms that help him dominate at the butterfly.
Moreover, when it comes to the case of women (or men) having different chromosomes, differing hormones, or different muscular structure, the assumed scientific link between the “different” and the “better” just isn’t there. We know this because of Dutee Chand.
The Bravery of Dutee Chand
Chand was an Indian sprinter who rose to prominence for winning 100 and 200 sprints at the 2014 World Junior Championships, hoping to work her way towards an Olympic berth in Rio 2016. However, in 2014 the IAAF determine that she failed “gender testing.” After subjecting her to a battery of additional (invasive) tests, they declared her ineligible to compete due to hyperandrogenism. She fought back through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing in part that: 1) there was no demonstrated relationship between women having high testosterone and enhanced athletic performance; 2) there were no scientific studies linking hyperandrogenism to athletic performance; and 3) factors other than hormone levels could account for improved performance.
She won her case, forcing the IAAF to lift the ban and allow her to compete. At Rio, she became only the third Indian woman to compete in the sprints, although she did not move past the heats. Strangely enough, the loss seemed to prove her point. If hyperandrogenism would turn every female into Wonder Woman, shouldn’t she be beating everybody?
Yet, while fighting the case, Chand was submitted to constant criticism in the press and social media, who put every detail of her private life under a microscope. It’s one thing to claim that athletes who hold hands in public be subject to photographs. It’s another for sporting bodies to order invasive medical tests, then leak those to the press.
Not Such a Long Way Baby
Ultimately, the problem seems to hearken back to the unevolved attitudes about women in sports, period. Recall that de Coubertin himself said that women competing would be “unaesthetic and improper.” Since the Games was reestablished in 1896, the IOC has treated women as second-class citizens, first limiting the opportunities for them to compete, then subjecting them to differing standards. Under the guise of making competitions “fair,” the IOC requires women to undergo additional testing and has established an arbitrary limit to what constitutes a proper amount of hormones. As Chand and others argue, there is no upper limit for testosterone in men, though to carry through the argument, men with excess testosterone might have an advantage over others with “normal” levels.
Also, only some athletes are scrutinized–athletes from developing countries, with different skin color, or who are publicly LGBTQ–only some seem to take the brunt of the focus. When Caster Semenya, double-gold medalist in the 800m, started winning by large margins, her competitors complained that she just didn’t look female. Thus began decades of scrutiny and court fights for Semenya, whose every race is conducted practically under a spotlight of interrogation. There are plenty of other athletes who improve their times dramatically, are muscular, or are so far ahead of everyone else. No one claims that Katie Ledecky, the American swimmer who has shattered world records, or Simone Biles, the muscular gymnast who won multiple golds at Rio, are undeserving of accolades because they’re so much better.
Yet when Semenya won the gold at Rio, one racer cried foul because “there’s nothing I can do,” and the fifth place winner made a show of saying she was the “first European” to “win.” When we look to applaud the remarkable advancement of attitudes about LGBTQ athletes across the Olympic decades, it’s easy to see that the battle to end discrimination isn’t over yet.
Caster Semenya is still fighting.
This post continues the A to Z Challenge using the Olympic theme: