Monday 19 March 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

There’s a distinct aquatic feel to this post on the 1972 Olympics – both solid and liquid. We’ll start with the Winter games in Sapporo, Japan, in February. One of the most eagerly awaited competitions was the men’s figure skating. The European and World champion, Ondrej Nepela, was hoping it would be 3rd time lucky and that he would add Olympic gold to his impressive cabinet of 11 championship wins. And he was still only 21.

Seemingly without effort Ondrej succeeded in winning his Olympic gold, and decided that this would be his last year in competition. However, he was persuaded to stay on because the 1973 World Championships were to be held in his home city of Bratislava in Czechoslovakia. Ondrej knew that he wanted to retire at the top of his game, and he finished his career in Bratislava by retaining his Czech, European and World Championships. He then toured with “Holiday on Ice” for 13 years and turned to coaching. He died of AIDS in 1989 aged 38.

Also at the Sapporo games was future champion John Curry of the UK. I’ll be saying more about him in a few weeks. There as well was Canadian skater Toller Cranston. Whether they had much contact off-ice isn’t known, but by the 1973 World Championships Ondrej and Toller were having a short affair.

Like Ronnie Robertson before them, these skaters kept their sexuality secret, but at the next Winter Olympics one of them found himself at the centre of media attention which threatened to ruin his performance.

Moving on to the summer games held in Munich that year we think immediately of the murder of the Israeli athletes. But it is also the year that Mark Spitz broke all records by winning 7 gold medals in the pool. The only identified lgbt athletes in Munich also competed in the pool – Mark Chatfield and Peter Prijdekker in swimming, and Scott Cranham in diving.

American Mark Chatfield didn’t win any medals in Munich, but he did win an Olympic Diploma for 4th position, set an Olympic trials record in the 100m breaststroke, and was the reigning Pan American Games champion. Mark’s life out of the pool couldn’t have been more of a contrast. Always musically minded he earned a reputation as a talented cellist, composer and singer, being composer in residence at St. Cyril of Jerusalem church in Los Angeles. In 1993 he co-founded Musica Angelica, a chamber orchestra on whose recordings he performed. Mark continued to swim in US Masters competitions winning many medals, and in 1994 he won 6 gold medals, 1 silver and 1 bronze at the Gay Games in New York. He died aged 45 in 1998 of lymphoma.

In the same Munich Olympic pool was Peter Prijdekker of the Netherlands. He was actually brought up in South Africa, but because that country’s apartheid laws banned them from the Olympics (the IOC imposing its own version of keeping politics out of sport – they still admitted countries that didn’t allow female athletes) Peter returned to the Netherlands in order to qualify. After competing in the Olympics Peter moved to the UK (“following a man” according to all accounts) and has lived here ever since. He never gave up swimming and joined London’s Out to Swim team, with whom he has competed at 5 Gay Games winning 18 gold medals.

A different pool sport – diving – brings our first lgbt diver to the Olympics, an event brought to the fore of lgbt sport in more recent years by Greg Louganis and Matthew Mitcham. Canadian-born Scott Cranham lived in the USA during his childhood. At the age of 14 he won the 3m springboard title in the 1969 US Diving Championships. Moving back to Canada he earned a place on the national diving team in 1972. He didn’t perform well, but he improved enough to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand in 1974. An ankle injury sustained in a parachute jump then threatened to put him out of competition for good. I’ll tell you if he made it back to the Olympics in ten days time.

My next Olympic Countdown will be on 24th March with 125 days to go and will include the great lgbt Olympian John Curry.

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