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Openly gay Olympians won six times as many golds as their peers. Why?


By Nick Harris

SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year

22 August 2012

There were 23 openly gay athletes across all sports at the London 2012 Olympic Games according to observers who monitor such trends closely, notably

Ten of them won medals (43 per cent) and seven of them won gold medals (30.4 per cent), including the British equestrian rider Carl Hester, in the team dressage. Hester was the only openly gay athlete among the 451 men and women in Team GB.

By definition, 23 people is a small sample size, but the fact that it’s so small is part of the story. The success rates of those athletes puts the success rates of London Olympians overall in the shade.

Of the 10,820 athletes across all sports, Sportingintelligence has calculated that 595 separate individuals won a gold medal.

There were 302 gold medal events but in many of those events multiple people helped to win the gold, for example in all the team sports, in the non-solo rowing crews and in all the relay squads in athletics and swimming.

With 595 people going home with gold, that means one in 18 of London’s Olympians went home with gold (or 5.5 per cent).

Among the openly gay athletes – 20 of who were women and three were men – one in three went home with gold (or 30.43 per cent).

Openly gay Olympians in London therefore won six times as many gold medals per head as the total athletic population at the Games.

They also won more than twice as many medals per head of all colours than average. Around 1,800 individuals won medals of one colour or another (or 16.6 per cent of all athletes), whereas 43.4 per cent of the openly gay athletes won medals.

Are gay athletes better at sport? Almost certainly not, but we’ll come back to that shortly.

“It’s an absurdly low number,” said Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of Outsports, of the 23 openly gay Olympians. He was quoted in an Associated Press report carried by ESPN and the Huffington Post among others.

Estimates of the percentage of gay people vary widely but even at the low end of those estimates (1.5 per cent of people), one might expect around 160 gay athletes among the 10,820 participating at London 2012, or seven times as many as the 23 known to be gay.

Buzinski points out that considering the small ratio of openly gay sports people when set against, say, the ratio of openly gay people in the arts, politics or business, then “sports is still the final closet in society.”

What is staggering, statistically speaking, is the success of those 23 openly gay Olympians in London.

It is notable that the three men appeared in two sports – dressage and diving – that are anecdotally “gay friendly”. A spokeswoman for British Dressage, for example, said having gay riders “is the norm. Don’t get me wrong, there are straight riders too, but whether someone is gay or not in our sport is simply not an issue.”

In alphabetical order, the 23 openly gay London 2012 Olympians:

  • Marilyn Agliotti, Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel, Kim Lammers and Maartje Paumen, all members of the Dutch women’s hockey team who won gold.
  • Judith Arndt, a German cyclist who won silver in London in the time trial.
  • Seimone Augustus, an American who won basketball gold.
  • Natalie Cook, an Australian beach volleyball player.
  • Lisa Dahlkvist, Jessica Landström and Hedvig Lindahl, all Swedish football players who reached the quarter-finals.
  • Imke Duplitzer, a German fencer who was part of a team coming fifth in the women’s team epee.
  • Edward Gal, a Dutchman who won bronze in the team dressage.
  • Jessica Harrison and Carole Péon, French triathletes who finished ninth and 29th respectively in London.
  • Carl Hester, a Briton who won dressage team gold.
  • Karen Hultzer, a South African archer.
  • Alexandra Lacrabére, a French handball player who reached the quarter-finals.
  • Matthew Mitcham, an Australian 10m platform diver who was the only openly gay male Olympian in Beijing, where he won gold. In London he reached the semi-final.
  • Mayssa Pessoa, a Brazilian handball player.
  • Megan Rapinoe, an American who won football gold.
  • Lisa Raymond, American tennis player who won bronze in the mixed doubles.
  • Rikke Skov, a Danish handball player.
  • Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, a German cyclist who missed bronze in the road race by 0.25seconds.

A person’s sexuality is, of course, of no relevance in terms of how they do their job, or live their life. Or rather it shouldn’t be.

Yet while being openly gay in many areas of public life (be it politics, the police, the arts, the clergy, banking, whatever) in many countries is no issue, gay people – at least openly gay – remain hugely under-represented in many professional sports, and that’s even in ‘liberal’ countries across Europe and North America.

Whether you think this matters or not possibly depends on whether you think there is a wider social significance of societies being open and free. In large parts of the world, same-sex sexual activity is an offence punishable by years in prison, and in seven countries the death penalty remains in force for active homosexuality. See country by country laws for details.

In sport, particularly in football, openly gay professional players are rare. In British football they are non-existent in the men’s game since Justin Fashanu.

The Football Association’s only openly gay councillor, Peter Clayton, has said gay players have been told to stay in the closet or risk damaging their clubs’ commercial interests. Publicist Max Clifford has admitted that he has advised gay Premier League clients to keep their sexuality secret.

Evidently this is one area where sport, particularly football, needs to evolve.

One of a very small number of experts who have studied and researched sexuality in sport in any detail is Professor Eric Anderson, an American who is a professor of sports studies at the University of Winchester in England. In his work as a sociologist he has studied why gay men and women pursue professional sport (or not) and cites a large-scale study of tens of thousands of college students in the USA that found “gay men are more likely [than straight men] to drop out of competitive sport, and follow other pursuits instead.”

Those that don’t drop out, Anderson says, often find themselves in an environment that does not encourage them to come out. “Cultural homophobia is dropping at a rapid rate, so this isn’t an issue with the fans,” he says, citing a study of British football supporters where 93 per cent (of 3,500 surveyed) said they would have no problem with a player coming out.

Neither, he says, is a player being gay an issue with team-mates, although gay players might fear coming out because a coach or manager, who will often holds a player’s career in their hands, may react adversely.

Rather, Anderson contests, it is the “gate keepers” of sport, or “alpha males” who hold key roles in governing bodies and commercial entities around sport, that create an atmosphere not conducive to coming out. “Homophobic men like Sepp Blatter,” he says, a reference to Blatter’s infamous statement that gay fans daunted at going to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (where homosexuality is illegal) might refrain from sex while there.

As to why the openly gay Olympians won proportionately so many medals, Anderson is in no doubt that “openly” is the operative word, and that many times as many gay athletes took part, quite possibly winning no more or less than the overall London 2012 population.

His reseach has also shown, he says, that “gay male athletes are more likely to come out of the closet when they are good” and that “they have the sporting capital to negate the problems they encounter.”

Or in other words, a gay sportsman is much more likely be open about it when they know they’re got a great chance of winning – leaving little room for questions – from homophobes – over whether they should be involved in the first place.

So 10 medals, seven of them gold, among 23 gay Olympians in 2012 isn’t so anomalous – or rather it wouldn’t seem so if only one could see the whole picture.


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