Thursday, 5 April 2018

A Common Wealth of Sport

The year of big multi-sport events continues. Hot on the heels of the Winter Paralympics comes the Commonwealth Games which have just begun in the city of Gold Coast, Australia.

For most nations with British heritage (and now several nations with none) these are our very own Olympics. Unlike other sporting events, such as the Pan-American games, there has never been any involvement from the International Olympic Committee. It has a character of its own.

In a few sports the Commonwealth Games offers some athletes the only chance to compete in a major international multi-sport festival, a chance that doesn’t occur in the Olympics because their sport is not included. Squash, netball, powerlifting and lawn bowls are just a few sports in the Commonwealth Games that don’t appear at the Olympics. Also, para-athletes compete at the same games and don’t have a separate games.

While some critics put down the Commonwealth Games by claiming that the top international athletes aren’t present (by which they mean there aren’t any US athletes) there’s still many Olympic champions and top athletes who do compete. One third of the world’s population live in Commonwealth nations. A high proportion of the top Commonwealth athletes are also lgbt Olympic medallists. Of the 46 known lgbt athletes who have competed in the Commonwealth Games 34 are Olympians, and 18 of those have won Olympic medals. There is no evidence that the Commonwealth Games don’t feature the best in the world.

Here is my list of known lgbt Commonwealth Games athletes. This is list is far from complete as I have a lot more research to carry out.

There are 11 openly lgbt athletes competing this week (all mentioned in the list), including the first ever transgender athlete, Laurel Hubbard, competing in weightlifting for New Zealand. Transgender athletes have often had a difficult time being accepted into their sport. The inclusion of Laurel Hubbard was challenged by the Australian Weightlifting Federation, but the Australian Commonwealth Games association accepted her and gave her official accreditation to compete.

The question of gender verification is also still a difficult process for some athletes. One of the most high profile cases of a currently competing athlete was that of South Africa’s Caster Semenya a decade ago. She had been subjected to a very public scrutiny of her gender. Despite this she went on to win a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She makes her Commonwealth Games debut this week. Caster has the honour of carrying her national flag at the opening ceremony, a duty she has undertaken at both of her Olympic opening ceremonies, such has been the support the South African athletic federation has in her. She is the only lgbt athlete to carry her flag at an Olympic and a Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.

On the subject of flags, the Commonwealth Games, like the Olympics, has its own flag. Last time, in Glasgow 2014, one of the athletes given the honour of carrying it into the stadium was Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe. This was just a few months after he came out publicly as gay, and he received one of the loudest and longest cheers when his name was announced.

Recently Ian Thorpe’s place at the top of the lgbt Olympic medal table was pipped by Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst. Ian’s place at the top of the lgbt Commonwealth Games medal table is unlikely to be beaten in the foreseeable future. He has 10 gold medals. The athletes in 2nd and 3rd place retired long ago and will never overtake him. Diver Tom Daley in 4th place is the highest placed multi-gold medallist still competing. Tom has 3 Commonwealth gold medals, and only if he wins all gold medals currently available to him (men’s platform, men’s synchro platform and mixed synchro platform) at every Commonwealth Games up to 2026 when he’ll be 32, will he overtake Ian Thorpe’s record.

In second place on the medal table with 7 gold medals is another Australian, track athlete Raelene Boyle. Like Ian Thorpe Raelene has taken place in an opening ceremony. In 1982 when the Commonwealth Games were held in Brisbane she was the final runner in the Queen’s Baton relay. Raelene has also taken part in an Olympic opening ceremony, bringing the torch into the stadium at the Sydney 2000 games.

The Queen’s Baton relay is the equivalent of the Olympic torch relay, and the final runner is the equivalent of the Olympic cauldron lighter. The baton relay celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and usually begins at Buckingham Palace and sets off on its journey to the opening ceremony. The Gold Coast baton left the palace in May 2017. In the crowd watching the ceremony was a spectator at the entrance to the Mall with a Pink Jack draped over the barrier. Once again, Ian Thorpe gets a mention now, as he held the baton aloft on the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge at the beginning of January.

Unlike the Olympic torch relay the Queen’s Baton relay has included one section that was specifically organised to honour the local lgbt community. On 1st May 2014 the Queen’s baton was in Toronto as part of the Glasgow games relay. The main section was called the Relay of Inclusion. It was 1½ kilometres long and ended at the Toronto Pride House with a large reception. Those who ran on the Queen’s Baton Relay of Inclusion included:

Michelle DuBarry (Russell Alldread), a legendary drag queen,
Rev. Dr. Brent Hawks, Metropolitan Community Church minister,
Toni Greaves, para-athlete,
Tedd and Garry Kónya, lgbt sports and community activist,
E. J. (Anikay-Keesic) Kwandibens, fitness instructor and Two Spirit activist,
Kinnon Ross MacKinnon, transgender powerlifter,
Junic Wokuri, Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda.

Elsewhere in the Commonwealth lgbt rights are a big problem. Many countries still use the old 19th century legal system an laws introduced by former European colonial powers that criminalised homosexuality.

One nation that was part of the French colonial empire, Cameroon, joined the Commonwealth in 1995 (two other non-British Empire nations have also done so, Rwanda and Mozambique). Thierry Essamba was one of Cameroon’s top athletes, winning a gold medal in the hurdles at the 2013 Central African championships. One month before the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games he was suspended from his national team because of rumours of his homosexuality. As a result his family disowned him and he became depressed and attempted suicide. The worldwide athletics community was largely supportive of Thierry. It was hopes that he would compete at the Gay Games held in Cleveland just after the Commonwealth Games finished but the Federation of Gay Games refused to fund his travel expenses because they didn’t want to put him at the head of a long waiting list of other lgbt athletes. Thierry’s gold medal time at the Central African championships would have earned his a gold medal at the Gay Games as well.

While Thierry Essamba was denied the chance to compete for his country at the Commonwealth Games, Laurel Hubbard has succeeded. The presence of lgbt athletes, and a Pride House, at international multi-sport events will only be a positive step towards full inclusion and a good influence on those nations who still discriminate in sport.

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