Imagine yourself a new Olympic medalist, your heart racing, the crowd cheering, bowing slightly to receive your prize for the fastest run, the strongest lift, or the highest leap. With millions watching, do you wave, smile, and then unleash your rainbow flag?
If you want to become the next sponsored celebrity jock on a cereal box, probably not.
More often, gay and lesbian Olympic athletes—like swimmers Mark Tewksbury and Bruce Hayes, diver Greg Louganis, and rower Holly Metcalf—have come out after winning those all-important medals.
Metcalf now coaches, as does California swimmer Dan Veatch, who competed in backstroke at 1988's Seoul Olympics, when, Veatch says, 'I was 23, and had not dealt with my sexuality yet. And there was much greater pressure at the trials than at the Olympics. You have to finish first or second to represent the United States. But once you're [at the Olympics], your goals change from actually competing, to making finals, to winning a medal.'
Veatch admires other gay athletes (he won nine medals at the 1998 Gay Games V); but as for coming out at the Olympic level, 'I don't know what it would be like now. It was more of a nonissue at that point in my life. The media, and recent legislation, have come far in 20 years, so it's easier for athletes.'
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, almost 20 gay and lesbian competitors were out, but received minor attention limited mostly to the gay media.
Convincing even the least famous of sports celebrities to 'officially' come out has never been easy. Even straight athletes who comment on rumors are sometimes thought to be gay. Those who pose shirtless or who model underwear attract speculation—possibly deserved—from gay fans.
But the only practical way for progress to be made is by nurturing an environment of equality from the ground up.
At a recent panel organized at San Francisco's Washington High School, I spoke, along with Bay Area gay and lesbian athletes and coaches, about our experiences. This empowering Gay Day would be controversial anywhere else, but the school is an exception—it even has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Chuck Louden, a coach for an international school, told of his coming out as a track coach. It was his honesty and persistence that overcame any homophobia and led to a tolerant environment. 'I try to be the coach I never had,' he said.
At universities, greater progress is being made, but even there, sometimes it takes a lawsuit. When Andrea Zimbardi, a former catcher for the University of Florida's (UF) varsity women's softball team, was released from the team shortly after alleging sexual orientation discrimination, she went to the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which helped her win an agreement that instills education, growth, and change. UF will provide training to combat homophobia in sports to its entire athletic department, including athletic directors, coaches, and staff.
NCLR's Homophobia in Sports Project coordinator Helen Carroll, who coached basketball for decades, said, 'I believe this top-rated athletic program will be even better as a result of this agreement.' UF was asked to restore Zimbardi's final year of NCAA eligibility and to pay for her Master's degree studies at the university.
'My goal from the very beginning has been to help ensure that other gay and lesbian athletes at UF feel welcome, accepted, and judged solely on their talent,' said Zimbardi.
Since many Olympic athletes train in college programs, how long before such change affects their lives? Despite the gossipy news of Durex giving out about 50 condoms per athlete in Athens, the atmosphere in the city, unlike in ancient times, seems far less romantic.
Hundreds of military guards have been hired to provide security at the event. A bombing earlier this year in Athens—and a recent power failure—further showed the city's problems as host. The BBC reported that more than two dozen workers died in the hasty rush to complete facilities.
The Olympic Games haven't been gay-friendly in, well, centuries. Its contestants may become heroes to specific communities. However, most athletes undergo years training not just for their country, but for their own glory, an obsessive personal goal to be the best, and, of course, lucrative sponsorship deals. Until gay and gay-friendly corporations offer the same benefits as Nike or Adidas, this may take a while.
Look closer to home for heroes, where future Olympians learn, and gay and lesbian coaches can teach them.
Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org . He can be reached care of this publication or at firstname.lastname@example.org .