Sunday 18 October 2015

Olympic Alphabet : C is for ...


One of the most interesting statistics in the lgbt sporting community is the high proportion of lgbt Olympic champions compared to others. But then they have a better chance of becoming champion because of their lower numbers. Over the course of the modern Olympics each of them has had 219 chances of winning one gold medal, whereas non-lgbt athletes are scrambling with 17 others to win it.

When I say “champions” I’m referring to events rather than individuals. There may be up to 15 gold medals awarded to a soccer team but official records only count them as one. I won't include any Paralympians in the statistics as I'll feature them another time.

Using the most recent reliable figures for the total number of modern Olympians (records for the first modern Olympics are incomplete) we see an estimated 128,420 summer and winter athletes officially listed, including the lgbt Olympians. With 7,475 gold medal events verified by the IOC this means 5.8% of athletes (lgbt excluded) have become Olympic champion.

Moving to the lgbt athletes my current list (as of 1st October 2015) has reached 213, of whom 51 are Olympic champions. Converting this into gold medal events (combining medallists into single team events, eg. hockey, football) we have 34. This gives a percentage of 15.9 of lgbt Olympians becoming champions, just under 3 times higher than non-lgbt athletes. I don’t want to claim this is any indication that lgbt athletes are better than any other because, as I said earlier, there’s fewer of them chasing the medals. But it does indicate that lgbt athletes are just as capable of being successful in sport.

So who are the most successful lgbt Olympic champions? It should be remembered that most of them were not openly lgbt when they competed. The statistics below will, of course change over time as new Olympic take place and more athletes come out.

The first lgbt champion was Mildred “Babe” Didrikson (1911-1956), later Mrs. Zaharias, (USA athletics) at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She started the ball rolling in fine style by actually winning 2 gold medals, thereby also becoming the first of the 19 lgbt multi-champions and the first to win more than 1 medal in 1 Olympics.

The first lgbt Winter Olympic champion was Slovakian figure skater Ondrej Nepala (1951-1989) in Sapporo in 1972. One other connection between “Babe” and Ondrej is that they were both voted the best athletes of the 20th century – “Babe” Didrikson was voted the Best Female Athlete by the Associated Press in 1999, and Ondrej was voted the Best Slovak Athlete by his home nation in 2000.

The lgbt Olympian with the most gold medals are Ian Thorpe (Australia, swimming) with 5, and Ireen Würst (Netherlands, speed skating), Greg Louganis (USA, diving) and Jayna Hefford (Canada, ice hockey) winning 4 each. Jayna also holds the record for winning the most gold medals in consecutive games, 1 each in 4 games.

The most gold medals won in a single Olympics is by Ian Thorpe who won 3 in his home games in Sydney 2000. He was also the youngest lgbt champion, winning all of these a month before his 18th birthday (his most recent birthday was yesterday – belated Many Happy Returns, Ian!) (The oldest lgbt champion has been Carl Hester, GB, equestrianism, who was 45 when he won a gold medal at London 2012). Sydney 2000 holds another record – the most lgbt champions in one games, an impressive 9 individuals winning 10 gold medal events (Ian won 3 events). Two lgbt athletes were in the winning handball team, Denmark – Camilla Andersen and Lotte Klaerskou. As far as I have ascertained, Camilla is the earliest openly lgbt Olympic champion at the time of the competition.

The first openly lgbt champion can be said to be John Curry (GB, figure skating). Even though outed after he finished competing yet before the closing ceremony of the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics (he accepted the common knowledge of his sexuality but never discussed it, he was openly gay within his social circle) he was still the reigning Olympic champion at the time of the next games of Lake Placid in 1980 even though he didn’t compete in them.

Those are the modern Olympic champions. What about the Ancient Olympic champions? We have to remember that our concept of homosexuality didn’t exit all those hundreds of years ago. I’ve written many times of the commonly accepted practice of male athletes having younger male sex partners. The relationship between them was both physical and emotional. In that respect we can say all of the ancient Olympians are the same as those homosexual relationships today.

From the lists of ancient champions I’ve selected several which indicate more modern relationships which seem to have gone beyond the norm and drift into our modern concept of a “gay” relationship.

Perhaps the earliest of “gay” Ancient Olympic champion was Diocles of Corinth in 728 BC. At that time there was only one Olympic event, the stadion race, a race around the stadium track. Diocles was the younger partner, termed the eromenos in these relationships, to a Corinthian aristocrat in the city of Thebes called Philolaus. Diocles decided to go and live with Philioaus in Thebes for the rest of his life and they were buried in tombs which face each other. It was unusual for men not to marry by the time they were 30, and there is no record of either having a wife, so perhaps their relationship was like our modern gay ones.

By the time Hagesidamus competed in the 76th Olympics of 476 BC other sports had been added to the stadion. One of these was the pankration, a round combination of wrestling and boxing. Hagesidamus came from southern Italy and became the youth pankration champion. He was the eromenos of his trainer Ilas. The poet Pindar writes of their loving relationship in one of his many Olympian odes.

Finally, one champion I’ve mentioned a couple of times over the years is Pantarkes of Elis, winner of the boys wrestling match in 436 BC. He was the young protégé and eromenos of Phidias, the architectural co-ordinatotr of the Acropolis in Athens and the sculptor of the statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, at Olympic itself. Perhaps Phidias carved the inscription on Zeus’s finer which translates as “Pantarkes is gorgeous” during games in which he won his champion’s wreath.

There are many hundreds of other names champions from the ancient Olympics. I won’t go into more of them today. Next time we look at the letter D and at two lgbt athletes who are particularly significant in the heritage of lgbt Olympians.

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