Tuesday 25 January 2022

Olympic Winter in Summer

The first covid lockdown gave me the chance to do a lot of new Olympic research. Last year I presented some of it for the Tokyo games, but there was so much more new information that I'm going to split the rest of it into two. Part one is given here, and the rest on February 4th. 

As with other recent Olympic Games I have again been collaborating with Outsports to provide the most complete list of lgbt athletes who will be competing in Beijing in a couple of weeks time. I’ll produce the full Winter Olympian list with the Beijing names on February 4th. To see the Beijing list as its updated, go to the Outsports website here.

Later I’ll look at the possibility that the first lgbt Olympians may have competed in 1908, predating the previously named athlete by twelve years. First I want to look at a centenary in lgbt Olympism – the first gold medallists. However, the medals weren’t actually awarded until two years later at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924. At the 1894 Olympic Congress which founded the Olympic movement an Alpinism Prize was created. This was to be awarded for achievements in mountaineering in non-Olympic years and was first awarded at the Chamonix games.

The Alpinism Prize, consisting of gold medals, were awarded to the thirteen British and Australian members of the 1922 Everest Expedition, the first formed specifically with the aim of reaching the summit. The medals were presented at the Chamonix closing ceremony and were accepted by the deputy leader of the expedition, Lt.-Col. Edward Strutt. The Sherpas and guides were also awarded medals some years later. Even though the medals are often regarded as Olympic gold medals, the IOC doesn’t count them in their medal tables, but in my opinion, and in the opinion of others, their receipt of an Olympic gold medal qualifies their status as Olympic medallists.

Everest and the Rainbow Pride flag.

The most famous member of the 1922 expedition is George Mallory (1886-1924). He never got to see his medal. At the time they were being presented he was on his way back to the Himalayas on the Everest expedition on which he was to die. I wrote a little bit about Mallory several years ago here.

Even though there’s still debate about Mallory’s sexuality, there’s none about another member of the 1922 expedition, Maj. John Morris (1895-1980). He wrote about his sexuality in his memoirs. Morris’s role in the expedition was as transportation officer and interpreter, ensuring that all supplies and equipment were ordered and transported to the correct locations.

Morris joined another Everest expedition in 1936, once again as transportation officer and interpreter. His assistant was Tensing Norgay, the sherpa who successfully reached the summit of Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary.

After leaving the army in 1937 John Morris became a lecturer at several Japanese universities, but after Japan entered World War II Morris was repatriated to the UK. Almost immediately afterwards he joined the BBC Far Eastern Service working in the same office as the vehemently homophobic author George Orwell. After Orwell’s death Morris wrote of the constant homophobic abuse he received from him. From 1952 to 1957 Morris was appointed Controller of the BBC’s Third programme (now called Radio 3) the corporation’s channel dedicated to classical music.

At the moment, George Mallory and John Morris are the first known lgbt Olympians. But can we identify an lgbt Olympian before them who actually competed at the games? Research has come up with two possible names.

Before them I’II mention E. F. Benson (1867-1940). He is best known as a novelist and member of a remarkable queer family which I looked at briefly here. Benson was also an accomplished figure skater, competing for Great Britain in international competitions. In 1900 he became a member of the National Skating Association. Even though Chamonix 1924 is the first official Winter Olympics, several winter sports were included in previous summer games. In London in 1908 figure skating made its Olympic debut. Benson joined the organising committee with responsibility for figure skating. He also wrote several books on the subject.

Even though he wasn’t an athlete, E. F. Benson is the first known lgbt member of an organising committee (though not of a national Olympic committee – see below). His sexuality is well recorded, though two other men from London 1908 show how it is often difficult to ascertain a person’s sexuality from that period in time. Let me say from the start that we cannot claim that either of these men were gay or bisexual, only that there isn’t enough evidence to know beyond doubt.

The first was a close friend of Benson, Eustace Miles (1868-1948). He won a silver medal in jeu de paume (another name for real tennis, as opposed to lawn tennis) at the 1908 Olympics. He was the amateur world champion 8 times. He and Benson studied at Marlborough College where their friendship began. It is known that Benson had a huge crush on Eustace Miles, and some of Benson’s biographers suggest a physical relationship between them. Benson’s diaries and letters are too discreet to know for sure, and no-one has yet written a full biography of Miles. In 1906 Eustace Miles married Dorothy Killick. They had no children.

Miles and Benson wrote several books together on healthy diets, sport and exercise. Miles advocated what would today be considered fashionable but what was regarded as “fad diets” in his lifetime. These revolved around vegetarianism and no alcohol. He opened what was probably the first vegetarian restaurants and health food shops in Britain. Even though these were very successful his ideas soon went out of fashion and he went bankrupt.

What can we say about Eustace Miles’ sexuality? Here’s a quotation from “The Life of E. F. Benson” by Brian Masters (Chatto and Windus, 1991): “His [Benson’s] abiding friendship, however, one that survived all the trivial upheavals of romance, was with Eustace Miles… The attachment of Fred [E. F. Benson] and Eustace Miles bears all the marks of a mature and sensible alliance, based on more than physical beauty and the flutterings of a malleable heart.”

The second name to consider is Geoffrey Hall-Say (1964-1940). He won a bronze medal in the figure skating competition organised by E. F. Benson. At the age of 44 he is still the oldest person to win an individual Winter Olympic medal. Very little is known of his private life, though his sporting influence went beyond skating. He was a keen snooker player, a council member of the Billiards Control Club, a boxing administrator and a yacht racer. Hall-Say never married and lived for a time with other bachelors, and in the 1930s he moved to Brighton, a town known for its gay, drag subculture at the time.

Geoffrey Hall-Say’s private life is similar to that of many gay men of his time who lived in the closet. Much more research is needed to determine if he was also one. An irony is that his childhood home of Oakley Court in Berkshire will be familiar to many as Dr. Frank N. Furter’s castle in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.

The London 1908 Olympic competitor badge, which both Eustace Miles and Geoffrey Hall-Say would have worn.

Perhaps we’ll never discover the identity of the first lgbt Olympian. Too much secrecy surrounds the lives of people in those days. We can only speculate.

Even more recent research has uncovered the presence of an lgbt individual at the very first modern Olympics in 1896. He wasn’t an athlete, but the Chairman, later the President, of the German Empire National Olympic Committee. His name is Prince Aribert von Anhalt (1864-1933). He is the first known lgbt member of a national Olympic committee.

The prince’s homosexuality was hinted at in his lifetime, but later and modern historians claim that his marriage to Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter ended after he was found in bed with another man. I’ll write more about Prince Aribert in a future “Game of Gay Thrones” article.

Whatever contribution they have made to the Olympic Games, whether as an athlete, coach, committee member or judge, we can now say that there has been an lgbt presence at every Summer Olympic Games – except 1904.

On February 4th I’ll publish the full update list of lgbt Winter Olympians with some facts and figures. Among them will be the newly identified first lgbt Winter Olympic competitor (as opposed to mountaineers or the Summer Olympians discussed above) and the Winter Olympian who has had the biggest influence on the games.

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