Monday 19 September 2016

Olympic Alphabet : Z is for ...

Now that the dust I settling on the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games we review what has been record-breaking events and, perhaps, the turning point in lgbt acceptance in sport. It will be interesting to look back at this review in four years time to see how much has changed.
Today I’m just going to concentrate on the Olympics. The Paralympics will feature in a separate article in November as part of my Disability Awareness Month. There has been a massive amount of information to digest and it will be necessary to split this article into two. Part 2 will be tomorrow.
Before the games began there was the torch relay of course. The Rio torch was lit on 21st April at the ancient site of Olympia. From there the torch was taken to Athens by a relay of Greek athletes and arrived at the handover ceremony a week later.  One of the last torch bearers was gay gymnast Ioannes Melissanidis. This year is the 80th anniversary of the torch relay and I wrote more about it on the anniversary day.
It has been difficult locating full details of all the torch bearers who relayed it round Brazil However, there are two who provided significant moments.  Brazil is known for its high transgender visibility (and, unfortunately, its high transgender murder rate). Two people became the first known transgender torch bearers. The first was teenager Bianka Lins on 10th May running through Curvelo, and the second was Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho on 24th Jul running through São Paolo.
The opening ceremony held little lgbt presence. I wrote in my article on the letter “W” that supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s dress and several team uniforms were created by gay designers. But the transgender presence was still visible. The organising committee made much of the presence of another Brazilian model, the transgender model Lea T. She was one of the tricyclists who led the teams into the stadium. Lea had the honour of leading in her home team (I only know of one other lgbt person who led the home team into the stadium – Wade Bennett at the Sydney 2000 opening ceremony).
The media heralded Lea T as the first transgender participant in an opening ceremony. She may be the first in a leading role, but there may be many others who acted as volunteers or performers who are not known to us as the present time. Caitlyn Jenner took part in the Los Angeles 1984 opening ceremony as a bearer of the Olympic flag and substitute cauldron lighter.
The closing ceremony had two lgbt flag bearers. GB’s retiring women’s hockey captain Kate Richardson-Walsh carried the Union Jack, and Caster Semenya became the first ever lgbt athlete to carry her national flag at both the opening closing ceremony – opening ceremony at London 2012 and closing ceremony in Rio. Despite the controversy around Caster’s inclusion in women’s competition the decision of the South African Olympic Committee to choose her as the flag bearer sends a clear signal to the world that her nation supports her.

At the beginning of summer there didn’t seem to be any noticeable difference in the way the Olympics welcomed lgbt athletes. The ongoing controversies over gender allocation was threatening to overshadow the efforts of the few known lgbt athlete who had been identified by myself and my friends at, Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski.
Between us we produced the first list of out lgbt Rio Olympians on 11th July. Almost immediately we all received emails from other out athletes asking to be put on the list! Two athletes, however, wanted their names removed as they claimed they were not out publicly. It wasn’t long before the original list doubled in length, and by the end of the games there were a record-breaking 57 out lgbt Rio Olympians, double the number at London 2012. A massive 26 open athletes made their debut in Rio. This surely indicates that we are entering a period where lgbt athletes are becoming more open and sport is starting to be more accepting. I’ll deal with the actual medals and results tomorrow.
For the first time an effort was made to compile a list of those openly lgbt athletes who competed in Olympic trials and qualifying events who didn’t make the teams. There are some very talented young athletes rising in the world of sport to keep an eye on for Tokyo 2020.
Several team sports had lgbt coaches. In hockey former Olympian Alyson Annan-Thate coached the Dutch women’s team to silver. Another former Olympian, Sweden’s Pia Sundhage, also coached the women’s football team to silver. At the previous two Olympics Pia had coached the US women’s team to gold, and her place in Rio was taken by British-born Jill Ellis. Unfortunately, the US team finished in 5th place in Rio.
The equestrian events brought a host of past lgbt Olympians to Rio was trainers and officials. George Morris, a legendary figure in the US, has been involved in the Olympics since he entered the US trials in 1956. He first competed at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He acted as dressage Chef d’Equipe (or Assistant Chef) for the US Olympic teams in 5 consecutive games until this year when he switched to Brazil (his partner is Brazilian). At the age of 78 he was the oldest lgbt Olympian working at Rio. His place as US Chef d’Equipe went to another great lgbt dressage Olympian Robert Dover. Chair of the US Eventing selection committee was another former Olympian Robert Costello.
Taking a judging position was New Zealand’s Simon Latimer. For the second time he was the youngest of the diving judges. He’s a diver himself, having won gold medals at the Outgames. He was also a judge at the US Olympic diving trials in June. In Rio his judging appointments included the preliminaries and finals of Tom Daley’s event, the 10 meter platform, and the 3 meter springboard preliminaries with Brazil’s openly gay diver Ian Matos. Also in the diving the great Greg Louganis returned as mentor to the US team.
Away from the actual sport there was a noticeable lgbt presence on television screens. In the UK the face of the Olympics and Paralympics has become Clair Balding. At both London 2012 and Rio 2016 she graced the screens at lead presenter for the BBC’s Olympic coverage and Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage.
The Rio games were not without incidents of homophobia. Even during the women’s football tournament which began several days before the opening ceremony there were reports of homophobic chants coming from the spectators. As the games progressed reports of further chants were fewer.
The biggest controversy that emerged was the result of a straight self-styled journalist from “The Daily Beast” who posed as a gay man and used Grindr to gather information on closeted lgbt athletes and publish them. Thankfully the backlash of protest meant that the IOC banned him. Even before this, “The Daily Beast” has never fulfilled my own expectations of a trustworthy or responsible media organisation and I can’t believe it ever will.

But let’s end on a much more happier note. The Rio Olympics provided several public incidents which I don’t think anyone would have dreamt possible. Two lgbt Olympians, Tom Bosworth and Isadora Cerullo, became engaged to their partners in very public manners. Several other same-sex couples were acknowledged – Tom Daley’s fiancé was mentioned and shown in the crowds, and Larissa Franca and her partner appeared in an NBC feature (after previously referring to her partner as her “husband”). But to top that, there have been a few couples in recognised partnerships before at the games, and couples with only one spouse competing, but Team GB’s Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh were the first married couple to compete on the same team.
On that happy note I’ll leave you until tomorrow when I’ll be analysing the results of the lgbt Olympians and seeing if any of them have entered the all-time Top Ten LGBT Medal Chart.


  1. Hi Tony! Although we were pretty much invisible, let's not forget about the LGBT volunteers, part of the Força de Trabalho, as we were called there in Rio2016. I, as a les woman, never felt so welcomed being out, and it was so nice to meet other LGBT people from around the world while working to make the Olympic and Paralympic Games a success. Also, this made my girlfriend, who's a Brit, pay attention to the Games like never before. Now we're looking forward to PyeongChang 2018 and Tokyo 2020, to see LGBT athletes be out and proud and successful, and of course, to put our efforts as LGBT volunteers!

    1. You are so, so, so, inspirational. I applied to be a volunteer for London 2012 but I was just one of thousands who were turned down because there were so many. I visited the London Paralympics with my brothers and was so impressed by the enthusiasm and energy of the volunteers. In my researches I have managed to identify a very small number of London 2012 volunteers who are lgbt. When I write my review of the Rio Paralympics I will certainly give you are a big thank you.