Monday, August 25, 2008

Denial Ain't a River in Egypt: NBC's Deafening Silence on Gay Olympic Athletes in its Olympics Coverage

How's this for an compelling up-close and personal story, courtesy of

"Burnt out and struggling with depression and anxiety, an up-and-coming Olympic hopeful drops out of his sport two years before the Beijing Games. His coach talks him into resuming training the year before the Olympics and he makes his country’s team which isn’t expected to fare terribly well against China’s powerhouse squad.

Indeed, the athlete performs poorly in his first event, failing to even make the semifinals. In his final event, however, and on his final attempt, he wins in an upset that not only denies China the gold medal, but by winning prevents a gold medal sweep by China in all eight of that sports events.

Now add to that the fact that the athlete also happens to have come out as gay less than six months earlier and is the only out gay male athlete at the games. As If that isn’t significant enough, his victory is easily the highest profile win ever by a gay man in an Olympic event. Both his mother and partner are in the stands to witness his triumph, something they almost didn’t get to do until a grant from Johnson & Johnson financed their trip to Beijing."

What Matthew Mitcham did on that 10-meter diving platform is the single most notable achievement by an openly gay male athlete at the Olympics, and it was done in dramatic, compelling fashion. And he did it with a personal story that is unarguably at least as compelling as Michael Phelps’ record-setting eight Olympic gold medals, Usain Bolt’s three gold medals and two world records, and even Sanya Richards’ relationship with her fiancée (who plays football for the NFL's New York Giants.)

Of course, there are openly gay and lesbian athletes competing in the just-concluded Bejing Olympics. It is common knowledge amongst the athletes themselves. And even then, they are more often than not so inside the closet they're practically embedded inside them.

Which leads me to this question: Why is Peoria the last to know?

According to Jim Buzinski at,"(Of) the 10,708 athletes at the Olympics this year, just 10 have identified themselves publicly as being gay. Of the 10, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham is the only male gay athlete. And at no point did NBC address that issue in its telecasts. And as Maggie Hendricks observes on her Yahoo! Olympics blog which Amanda Terkel notes on AlterNet:

"NBC did not mention Mitcham’s orientation, nor did they show his family and partner who were in the stands. NBC has made athletes’ significant others a part of the coverage in the past, choosing to spotlight track athlete Sanya Richards’ fiancee, a love triangle between French and Italian swimmers and Kerri Walsh’s wedding ring debacle."

Likewise, there was no mention of the opening-ceremonies actions of out lesbian fencer Imke Duplitzer, who held her own alternative opening ceremony to protest China's human rights policies. (Note: Duplitzer made it to the quarterfinals of the women's epee competition.)

Even more deafeningly silent was the accomplishments of openly lesbian athletes, as if they were treated like mere sidebars in midst of what the Aussie pulleed off. As author and cultural critic Patricia Neil Warren ("The Front Runner") observed on, there was a major play-up on Mitcham while the gold medal achievements of openly lesbian athletes -- Natasha Kai on the U.S. women's soccer team, and team captain Gro Hammerseng and her partner Katja Nyberg on the Norwegian handball team -- were cavalierly overlooked. Warren goes on to add:

"I first saw this weird attitude about LGBT medals at the 2004 Summer Games, when I was helping cover the Games on their Olympic blog. This was the first Olympics where our media actually put together a pre-Games "list of out athletes" who had made themselves publicly visible. In Athens we had 11 -- count 'em.

By the end of the Games, our heroes had raked together six medals in both individual and team sports. German fencer Imke Duplitzer won a team silver in épée. Spanish tennis player Conchita Martinez took a silver in women's doubles. German cyclist Judith Arndt won silver in the women's road race. Dutch swimmer Johan Kenkhuis got silver in the men's 4x100 freestyle relay swim. Last but not least, U.S. equestrians Robert Dover and Guenther Siedel won team bronzes in dressage.

If we want Olympic athletes to risk their careers, maybe their lives, to come out, then more people in our "community" -- especially in our media -- need to grow up where sports are concerned. What cuts it at the circuit party or on the red carpet is not what cuts it on the diving platform, or the track, or the boxing ring, or the basketball court. It's time for our media to start rewarding our out athletes with the level of educated, sensitive and responsible recognition that all of them really deserve."

The reasons many Olympic athletes keep their sexualities to themselves are diverse. As equestrian athlete Robert Dover explained in a 2005 e-mail to

"The reasons athletes stay in the closet are varied, but revolve mainly around fear of the consequences of being out -- from the effects on performance, interaction with teammates, fans and the media, and, in some cases, endorsements. In addition, the vast majority of Olympic athletes are under 30, a time when even people who are not elite jocks are wrestling with their sexuality. Being an Olympic athlete requires full-time dedication and a lot of things get put on hold. It is just easier to hide and deal with one’s sexuality later."

Later, Dover told the Associated Press prior to the Athens Games about why more gay athletes are not open:

"You spend a day with these athletes, and it becomes obvious that gay people are everywhere...The reason many of them aren't out is because they're focused on their job during this time when sports is the No. 1 thing in their lives."

Perceptions are everything in sports, and as former "out" collegiate gymanist Brandon Triche points out, he spoke knowingly of prominent former U.S. gymnasts who are gay but closeted, in some cases having sham marriages for appearances' sake, and are likely to never come out of the closet. Triche goes on to add:

"One reason for the secrecy in that gay gymnasts do not want to feed the public perception that theirs is a “gay sport,” at a time when men’s programs are being cut at the collegiate level and the sport struggles for visibility."

"I think that those who keep their sexuality secret and act overly heterosexual hinder the sport...My experience shows there are no more gay men competing in gymnastics than in any other sport. I was on my high school football team and there were many more homosexuals on that team than I ever met who were ever openly gay in gymnastics. I was out on my team and had a gay teammate. But there still has not been an Olympic gymnast that has come out...I think that for closeted elite gymnasts, not only are they scared to be a role model for gay youth, they are afraid that coming out will confirm the perception that they compete in a ‘gay sport.’ The misconceptions are so far from the truth. Gymnastics is one of the toughest, hardest and most gruelingly difficult sports in the world.”

All this can be linked to cultural and gender stereotyping. It's like slapping a label on something without first analyzing its content. Let's throw away those Goddamned Dyno labelmakers and accept these athletes on their merits, regardless of who they might be.

And in the meantime, let's beautify our insides with Metamucil.

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