Tuesday 15 December 2015

Olympic Alphabet : E is for ...


Equestrian sport makes up one of the largest groups of lgbt Olympians/Paralympians with 13 being identified to date, and a handful of non-competing equestrians. There are also a handful of records between then.

The first equestrian competitor was Norman Elder (1939-2003) in 1960 at the Rome Olympics. As well as being the first lgbt rider he is also the first Canadian lgbt Olympian. Not only that but he was also the first lgbt Olympian to have a sibling on the same team. His older brother Jim was also a successful ride, being Olympic champion in Mexico City in 1968.

Norman Elder has been seen as something of an eccentric. He was an explorer, an artist, and he collected exotic animals. Various residents in his Toronto home included a Galapagos tortoise, a boa constrictor, a couple of pythons, ferrets, lemurs, chinchillas and fruit bat. His home was also something like a collection of curiosities those 17th and 18th century aristocrats gathered on their Grand Tours of Europe. Most of the items in Norman’s collection were gathered during his lengthy expeditions into remote parts of the world. Some of these expeditions will feature in a future “X-tremely Queer” article.

Norman competed in two Olympics. As well as Rome he competed, again with his brother, in Mexico City in 1968. He competed in both the team and individual 3-day event. Although he finished 3rd in the non-scoring jumping section of the team event they earned Olympic diplomas by becoming 8th.

Later in life Norman Elder’s reputation was tarnished by his conviction for indecently assaulting teenage boys before the time when the legal age of consent for homosexual acts was lowered. Norman died of an apparent suicide in 2003.

It would be 16 years before another lgbt equestrian competitor arrived at the Olympics. In the Los Angeles games of 1984 American rider Robert Dover (b.1956) competed in the first of his record 6 Olympic appearances as a competitor at the age of 28 (the age at which Norman Elder was at his last games in 1968). In all of his Olympic appearances he was the US equestrian team captain. There are two other records which Robert Dover may not be too keen to publicise. First is his record as the oldest lgbt Olympian to compete. At his final games in Athens 2004 he was 48 years old. Winning a bronze at those games makes him the oldest lgbt athlete to win a medal.

Robert is also the first Olympian to compete as an out gay athlete. In Robert came out before going to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, his second games, and has competed as an out Olympian in 5 games, more than anyone else (NOTE: RenĂ©e Sintenis was openly lesbian when she won Olympic bronze in the sculpture contest in Amsterdam 1928; the first out Olympian in a sport was John Curry, outed the day after becoming Olympic figure skating champion in Innsbruck 1976, and although he didn’t compete as openly gay, by time of the closing ceremony he was an out athlete - the first openly gay Olympian).

Even though Robert Dover didn’t win anything higher than a bronze medal at the Olympics he is regarded as one of the top ranking equestrian riders in America having won over a hundred equestrian Grand Prix championships in his career, more than any other American dressage competitor.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics and Paralympics had the most lgbt equestrian competitors – 9 in total, the highest in one sport at those games. They were Robert Costello (USA), Robert Dover (USA), Carl Hester (GB), Paul O’Brien (New Zealand), Kike Sarasola (Spain), Guenter Seidel (USA), Blyth Tait (New Zealand), Arjen Teeuwissen (Netherlands), and Paralympian Lee Pearson (GB). The two New Zealanders are the first male couple to compete at the same games in the same team.

One remarkable event occurred during the medal ceremony of the mixed team dressage event. Of the 12 people standing on the medal podium only 3 of them were men – and all 3 men were gay (Robert Dover, Guenter Seidel and Arjen Teeuwissien).

Paralympian Lee Pearson began his record-breaking run of medals at the Sydney games, the first of his Paralympic appearances. He holds the record for winning the most gold medals of all Olympian/Paralympians. He won 3 gold medals at all of his first 3 Paralympics. In his 4th, London 2012, he won 1 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze.

Apart from these competing riders there has also been a handful of lgbt reserves, trainers and team managers. The first was Mason Phelps, a reserve for the US team at Mexico City 1968. Peter Taylor was assistant team manager for the Canadian equestrian team at the 1993 Barcelona games. Sydney 2000 competitor Paul O’Brien was an Olympic selector for the New Zealand team at the Beijing 2008 games, whose non-competing team manager was Blyth Tait.

Lee Pearson and Carl Hester became the first - and only - openly lgbt athletes in any Olympic sport to win the same medal, in the same event, for the same country, in the same year, in the Olympics and Paralympics in the same host city. Both won gold in the mixed dressage competition at London 2012 for Team GB. (NOTE: Sheryl Swoopes and Stephanie Wheeler would have been the first to hold this record – USA, gold, basketball, Athens 2004 – had they both been openly lgbt.)
To end with I’ll briefly mention something I spotted at the London 2012 games. During the equestrian events I saw Edward Gall and his partner Hans Peter Minderhoud exchange the first same-sex lip-to-lip kiss live on television. Unfortunately, I turned off the recorder before it happened so can’t prove it!! Perhaps if I write to the BBC they’ll confirm it!

Next time the Olympic Alphabet returns it’ll be the Olympic year 2016.

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