It isn’t easy coming out of the closet if you are lesbian, gay, bi or transgendered. And it can be much harder if you’re an elite Olympic athlete performing under the glare of TV lights.
That’s why the Canadian Olympic Committee’s announcement this past week that it is partnering with two anti-homophobic organizations to protect and support LGBT athletes, coaches — and kids in general — is so ground-breaking. And so right.
Athletes have always been shining role models for kids. Their lives illustrate the dizzying heights that can be reached with hard work and dedication.
Now, Canadian Olympic athletes will go into schools under a new #OneTeam athlete ambassador program to impress on kids the importance of mental fitness, self esteem and equality in sport.
The new program will be guided by You Can Play Project, an organization for LGBT equality in sport, and Egale, a charity promoting LGBT human rights.
#OneTeam is a far-reaching initiative.
• It will create gay- and lesbian-focused resources with its partners to be used in its Canadian Olympic School Program for students from grades 6 to 8. The Olympic Committee hopes to establish formal relationships with 25 school boards and engage with a million students by the end of 2016.
• It will also update the COC’s own anti-discrimination language — and provide support for Olympic athletes who want to come out.
The power of sport is a key part of the message. As Wade Davis, executive director of You Can Play, explains: “We have always believed that by creating change in sport, we create change across all segments of society.”
One of the COC’s key advocates for the program is former Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who came out in 1998 and was Canada’s chef de mission for the 2012 Olympics in London.
His own story illustrates the need for the COC program. “If you were actually a gay person in the locker room, all you heard were very negative, condescending terms,” he told the Star. “Every time I heard something nasty, I felt like saying, ‘Really, you guys, you’re talking about me.’ But I couldn’t imagine taking that step.”
The COC’s program may end up being a game changer not just for kids in sport and in schools in Canada, but around the world.
You Can Play hopes to use the agreement with the COC to approach other Olympic committees. And down the road, the COC hopes to be able to convince all members of the International Olympic Committee to make it clear in the Olympic Charter that athletes have the right to compete regardless of sexual orientation.
After the 2014 Sochi Games, where Russia made speaking positively abut homosexuality a crime, it’s gratifying that the COC has finally called homophobia out of bounds — on any playing field.