Sometimes, you just have to say the words.
Coming out as gay was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But in the end I felt there was no choice. If I was going to have any hope of winning at the Olympics, I had to tell my secret to someone. That energy, which I could feel eating me up inside, needed to get out.
In the end, the person I chose to confide in was my technical coach, Debbie Muir. Although my sexuality had remained unspoken between us, I was pretty sure she knew what I was about to tell her.
And when the big moment came, she needed me to say the words.
Fast-forward 22 years. I was put into contact with a young male Canadian athlete who was preparing for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. He was having some challenges and his mental training consultant suggested he reach out to me. Sitting in my apartment, a very closeted young man told me he guessed I must know why he was there.
I told him I needed to hear him say the words.
In that moment, it seemed my life had come full circle. Or had it?
In some respects, it felt like there was never a worse time to be an LGBT athlete. In the lead-up to Sochi, global attention was brought to Russia’s detestable laws criminalizing homosexuality. The world awakened to the brutal realities faced by LGBT people in more than 75 countries in the world.
But the situation in Sochi showed this discrimination wasn’t found solely in parts of the world known to be trailing on the issues of inclusion and equality; segments of the most progressive societies were failing, too. Even though they were not being targeted specifically by the Russian government, LGBT athletes competing at these Olympics did not have any explicit guarantees that they would be safe.
Yes, in the Olympic Charter under Principle 6 it states that athletes should be able to practice sport “free from discrimination of any kind.” Even though the Olympics were to be held in a country that was targeting LGBT people, there was no mention, specifically, of LGBT athletes within that principle.
Sometimes you have to say the words.
In the past few years, we’ve seen small steps of progress for LGBT athletes in the world of sport. The NBA’s Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues. We witnessed the drafting of Michael Sam into the NFL. Before them were the likes of Billy Jean King, Greg Louganis and Martina Navratilova. But for all the individual efforts, the system didn’t change. The difficult and important conversation around LGBT issues didn’t happen.
I realized many years ago that if being gay in sport was going to be something that was truly accepted, the culture of sport had to change from the top down. Leadership had to create an environment capable of ushering in a new era of inclusion on our fields and in our gyms. Many organizations such as You Can Play and CAAWS have worked hard in this area for years, but it took Sochi for all of those efforts to awaken those in the international sport community.
When I was an athlete, and closeted, I would never have imagined that one day I would lead Team Canada into the Olympics as an openly gay Chef de Mission. I certainly wouldn’t have thought the Canadian Olympic Committee would have a presence in gay pride parades across the country.
And I never, ever would have foreseen that they would say the words that I so needed to hear when I was competing.
The Canadian Olympic Committee has taken a bold step by redrafting its Articles to add “sexual orientation” to its anti-discrimination policy, all in an effort to further protect Canadian LGBTQ athletes. The idea of being one unified Canadian team just got even stronger, and this is a positive step in the right direction.
At the international level, there are 40 recommendations going forward as part of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020. Recommendation #14 would add “sexual orientation” to Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter. If real change is to happen in the world of Olympic sport, then the IOC needs to say the words.
Because true change begins at the top.
- Mark Tewksbury is an Olympic gold medallist in swimming. He was the chef de mission of the 2012 Canadian Summer Olympic team