A historic number of LGBT athletes at Rio: trend or trendsetter?

The number of openly gay Olympians in Rio are more than twice as many as in London at the 2012 Games. 

Bruno Kelly/Reuters
The Olympics rings in front of the Amazônia soccer stadium in Brazil. There are 49 athletes at the Olympics that publicly identify as LGBT, twice as many than at the 2012 London Games.

The kiss Isadora Cerullo, a gay rugby player, gave her girlfriend on the pitch after she said "yes" to a marriage proposal Monday wasn’t the only historic LGBT moment in Rio this week.

Forty-nine Olympians are openly gay, the most of any Olympic Games since Outsports, a website that focuses on LGBT subjects in sports, started to record the statistic in 2008. This number is more than twice as many as in London in 2012 (23) or Beijing in 2008 (10).

Though the website’s co-founders, Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski, estimate there are far more closeted Olympians there, they say the increase in athletes who are openly gay goes hand-in-hand with the acceptance LGBTs have experienced in much of the world this millennium.  

“It’s no different from people on Wall Street, or Main Street, or the sports world,” Mr. Zeigler tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday.

“In all of society, LGBT people are becoming far more accepted. More and more of us are realizing we can come out and live healthy, happy lives,” says Zeigler, who is gay. “The sports world is not this desperately homophobic institution that it’s been painted with for so long. The Olympics are another indication of that.”

Only athletes who have announced they are gay through public statements, interviews, and pictures on social media in which they identify their partners are included on Outsports’s list it compiled with Tony Scupham-Bilton, an LGBT historian and blogger.

Famous names include Tom Daley, the British diver who posed with his bronze medal and fiancée and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black in an Instagram post, Elena Delle Donne, the American basketball player, and Rafaela Silva, the Brazilian judo athlete who won her country’s first gold medal this year.

The Olympics have often been a setting that has pushed LGBT subjects into public conversations. Greg Louganis is one of the most famous gay Olympians, though he didn’t announce he was gay until after he retired from diving. Robert Dover, an American equestrian rider, was out when he won bronze medals in team dressage at the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics. Yet, it was Matthew Mitcham, an Australian diver who came out just before the Beijing Games, that changed the conversation, Zeigler wrote for MEL Magazine August 2. After Mr. Mitcham won gold, he embraced his boyfriend in the stands. Zeigler, reflecting on that moment, compared the Australian to African-American sprinter Jesse Owens in 1936.   

“Just as Owens’ victory in front of Hitler had been a tremendous source of pride for African Americans, Mitcham’s gold in Beijing quickly became monumental for the gay community,” writes Zeigler. “Long told that they needed to stay in the closet to be successful and that gay men could not excel in sports, the LGBT community now had a very real example of how to succeed while still being true to themselves.”

Since 2008, Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Sam Farmer became the first to be drafted into the National Football League (NFL).

But, Buzinski questions how many Olympians have followed in Mitcham’s footsteps. Of the 49 athletes, just 11 are men. They are also less than a half-percent of the 11,551 athletes competing this month.

“You’re two steps forward, and a half step back,” says Buzinski, in an interview with the Monitor.

Buzinski said masculine culture in sports could deter male athletes from coming out. But Gus Kenworthy, who won the silver medal in freestyle skiing in Sochi, explained it differently. 

"For me, coming out after the Olympics was right,” he told USA Today, shortly after he become the first action sports star in 2014 to say he was gay. “The Olympics are overwhelming as an athlete. You work so hard for four years, heck, your entire life even, to get to that point. That commands all your focus.”

Politics might play a part too. Around the time Mr. Kenworthy was preparing to compete in Russia, the country in the news for its treatment of the LGBT Community. Rio is no different. In June, The New York Times listed Brazil as the deadliest place for LGBT. As Kenworthy said, athletes train their entire lives for one Olympic appearance. Why risk the distractions?

Outsports's list is also dominated by countries who have legalized gay marriage. At the top are the United States, Great Britain, Netherlands, and New Zealand.

“That’s why gay marriage is such a big powerful thing for people,” says Buzinski

When asked about his predictions for 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Buzinski offers just one guess.

It will be more than 49, he said.

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