Monday 29 February 2016

Olympic Alphabet : J is for ...


To celebrate today’s Leap Day I’m looking at a group of lgbt athletes who, well, leap! The modern summer Olympics and Youth Winter Olympics are always held in a leap year so it’s a good opportunity to look at the today. And this is a bit of a bumper article because I didn’t realise how many “jumpers” there have been and I wanted to give them all a mention today, especially considering it’ll be another 4 years before I can do it again! It would take too long to chronicle all of the incidents and achievements of all of them, so this can be seen as just an overview.

There are a few Olympic sports that involve jumping or leaping. Some of them will not be dealt with today because I covered them in earlier articles in this Olympic Alphabet series. These are the decathlon, equestrianism, figure skating and gymnastics. Other sports may include some jumping elements, such as basketball and swimming, but I’ll restrict myself to sports where sports where points are scored for jumping.

“Olympic jumpers” can be divided into several neat groups – diving, snow sports, and track and field. One exception is trampolining, which is classed as gymnastics. We’ll start with that.

Ji Wallace is the only lgbt Olympic trampolinist – so far (another is hoping to qualify for Rio). Ji represented his native Australia when it hosted the Sydney 2000 games. He won a silver medal and had hoped to compete at the Beijing 2008 games but failed to be selected. After coming out he has become a leading lgbt sport advocate and was appointed a Gay Games Ambassador.

Perhaps the group with the most well-known names are the divers. The biggest name being Greg Louganis. Of the records he holds the most significant is his winning of 2 gold medals in successive Olympics in the same diving events, the first diver to achieve this. His gold medals place him third in the table of lgbt champions.

Greg wasn’t the first lgbt Olympic diver. The earliest is the Canadian Scott Cranham who, along with Greg Louganis attended the London 2012 in a coaching position. Scott’s first appearance was 40 years before that in Munich 1972. Although he didn’t win any Olympic medals he did win 2 silvers and 2 bronzes at 2 Commonwealth Games. He was also one of the first Olympics to compete in the Gay Games. In total he has won 3 gold, 1 silver, and 3 bronze Gay Games medals. Both Greg and Scott were due to attend the Moscow 1980 games but were victims of their nation’s decision to boycott them.

In the Seoul 1988 Olympics we saw the most lgbt divers compete – Greg Louganis, Patrick Jeffrey, Craig Rogerson and Jhonmar Castillo (though his participation has been queried). These were the games where Greg Louganis won his second double-gold titles and the one in which he banged his head on the board. None of the other lgbt divers won medals, though Australian Craig Rogerson was Commonwealth champion at the time.

Up to then here were no openly gay divers, but at the Atlanta 1996 games there were 2. American Patrick Jeffrey was at his second Olympics, but it is one of his team-mates who was at the centre of a dispute before the games that threatened the team spirit.

Diver David Pichler’s coach was Ron O’Brien, the man who coached Greg Louganis. O’Brien developed a deep dislike for David’s boyfriend Steve Guiffre after Steve physically attacked O’Brien’s son on a plane. The incident escalated with David accusing O’Brien of interfering with his relationship, and O’Brien got a restraining order against Steve. Accusations flew around through to the US Olympic trials. Thankfully, differences were settled just before the Atlanta games began.

The first European gay diver competed in Atlanta as well. This was Sweden’s Jimmy Sjodin’s only Olympic appearance, though he does have a connection with the current gay diving icon, Tom Daley. In 2001 Jimmy took part in a reality documentary film which followed 6 openly gay young men on a bus journey to the Burning Man festival. The director and co-start was Dustin Lance Black, Tom Daley’s fiancé.

One diver who missed out on the Atlanta Olympics was South Africa’s Rob Costa. He was one of his nation’s leading divers and had taken part in the Olympic trials. While the swimming team was selected almost immediately the divers had to put up with procrastinations before being selected, only to be told two weeks before the Atlanta games that none of them, Rob included, would be going. The reasons vary. Some say it was because the diving scores at the trials were deliberately inflated to ensure qualification. Others (including Rob himself) claim it was because the South African Olympic Committee considered the Atlanta diving events too elitist and white (in effect, boycotting them). The same fate befell their equestrian and gymnastics teams.

The next Olympics in Sydney 2000 saw David Pichler return, with Patrick Jeffrey as his coach. Sydney also saw the first of 3 Olympics appearances by Australian diver Mat Helm. He is the first of the remaining divers on the list who competed in both solo diving and the new synchronised diving events introduced in Sydney. In Athens 2004 Mat was the only lgbt diver, winning a silver and bronze medal. In Beijing 2008 he was joined by fellow Commonwealth champions, both making their debut – Matthew Mitcham and Tom Daley. All of them have won Olympics medals, and Matthew Mitcham became Olympic champion in 2008. After the figure skater Ondrej Nepala who competed in the Winter Olympics at the age of 13 in 1964, Tom is the next youngest lgbt Olympian, and the youngest Summer Olympian. He has made an additional Olympic appearance at the first ever Youth Summer Olympics in Singapore 2010.

Now let’s move on to dry land. This second, larger, group are the track and field athletes, which include the decathletes Tom Waddell and Caitlyn Jenner that I wrote about under the letter “D”, so I needn’t say more about them here.

Appropriately, the earliest track and field “jumper” is one of the greatest of all time, and the most successful of the 24 people in this group. Mildred Didrikson (1911-1956), known universally as “Babe”, made only one Olympic appearance, in Los Angeles 1932, but what an appearance! She won a gold medal in the hurdles, and a silver in the high jump, breaking the world record in both. A true all-rounder Babe went on to have a successful golfing career and was named as the USA’s greatest sportswoman of the 20th century.

At the next games in Berlin two intersex athletes competed. One of these was Dora Ratjen in the high jump. I’ll be writing more about Dora and the other intersex Olympians when we reach the letter “X” in August.

There’s a big gap before another known lgbt “jumper” appears at the Olympics. This was in Mexico 1968 when decathlete Tom Waddell competed. In the nest two Olympics another well-known decathlete competed, Caitlyn Jenner, then known as Bruce. More about both of them is given under the letter “D”.

It was 8 years before another jumping event featured an lgbt athlete, and she was in the women’s equivalent of the decathlon, the heptathlon, which also includes jumping events. Sabine Braun competed for West Germany in Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988. Following German unification she competed in three more Olympics, winning a bronze in Barcelona 1992. Sabine is one of 6 lgbt athletes, and the first ever female German athlete, to compete in 5 or more Olympics. She was also the first female German athlete to come out.

In both 1984 and 1988 Sabine was joined by lgbt “jumpers” Greg Duhaime and Louise Ritter. Greg was a steeplechaser, which involves jumping over hurdles. Louise was a high jumper. Disappointment at being forced to boycott the Moscow 1980 games was followed by more at finishing in 8th place in 1984 because of a recurring hip injury, but she achieved Olympic gold in 1988 in a tense sudden-death jump off against the favourite.

Another high jumper appeared in the next two games. Kajsa Bergqvist competed for Sweden in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, winning bronze at the latter. She went on to greater success in the World and European Championships.

Sydney 2000 had the most lgbt jumpers – Sabine Braun, Kajsa Bergqvist, Peter Häggström and Balian Buschbaum. This was the only Olympic appearance by both Häggström (Sweden, long jump) and Buschbaum (Germany, pole vault). Balian Buschbaum, then known as Yvonne, is one of a surprisingly large number of transgender and intersex Olympians who I’ll cover in more detail under the letter “X”.

The last known lgbt “jumpers” is Nottinghamshire’s Rob Newton. Despite what an allegedly good BBC journalist heralded last October, race-walker Tom Bosworth is not the first openly gay Team GB track and field athlete, Rob Newton was. He competed in Athens 2004 in the hurdles (complete with flowing pony-tail). He featured in a major interview in “Gay Times” several months beforehand.

Finally, and I hope you’re not too exhausted by now, we move on to snow. There have been 7 lgbt “snow-jumpers” at the Winter Olympics. Four of these were snowboarders.

Snowboarding was introduced, along with women’s ice hockey, at the Nagano 1998 games. Both have had a complete lgbt presence ever since. At its debut we had our only snowboard medallist, Stine Brun Kjeldaas of Norway. She won a silver in the half-pipe competition. However, in 2002 she only finished 13th.

In Turin 2006 Stine’s future wife, the Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas also competed in the half-pipe contest. She returned 8 years later to the Sochi games in the slopestyle competition. Turin saw the introduction of another snowboard event, the snowboardcross. Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, the first lgbt Inuit Olympian, competed in snowboardcross in Vancouver 2010, and Australia’s Belle Brockhoff competed in Sochi 2014. Both came out in response to the anti-gay laws introduced into Russia.

When you think of jumping at the Winter Olympics the first image is of a ski jumper. There have been 2 lgbt ski jumpers so far – Canada’s Eric Mitchell in Vancouver 2010 and Austria’s Daniela Iraschko-Stolz in Sochi 2014. Daniela won a silver medal with her jump. At 17 Eric was the youngest ski jumper at the games. A nasty accident in training for the Sochi games halted any further Olympic competition though he is now part of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s campaign to improve lgbt inclusion in sport.

Last, but by no mean least, in this mammoth article is British-born American Gus Kenworthy, a freestyle skier. He won a silver medal in the slopestyle event in Sochi.

And that’s about it for now. I hope you’re not too exhausted by this long article. I’ll return with the next letter in our “Olympic Alphabet” next month when I’ll write about a couple of athletes who are, but at the same time, not, lgbt Olympians.

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