Now that the London Olympics are done and dusted, albeit with a display of hi-tech British kitsch in the finale, post-mortems are still crowding the pages of newspapers. This one though is a post-mortem of an alternative kind. A team, numbering just 23 athletes to India’s plus-size 83 which got six medals, did one better, finishing with a bounty of seven medals, including four golds.
No, a rainbow-coloured flag did not fly high as they stood on the podium. There were 23 openly gay athletes at the Olympics, who represented 10 countries across twelve disciplines. These included members of the Dutch gold medal-winning women’s hockey team; British equestrian rider Carl Hester, one of only four men in this scratch line-up; and the bronze-medallist for mixed doubles in tennis, Lisa Raymond, who had once won the 1999 Wimbledon crown with India’s Leander Paes, himself a cropper at the Games amidst an unsavoury selection controversy.
Tenuous tally comparisons aside, the story of gay athletes at the Olympics has another, much stronger, India connection. The earliest identified gay Olympic athlete to actually compete was Germany’s Otto Peltzer at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. Although Peltzer was initially lionized in his country, conforming as he did to the pure-blooded Aryan aesthetic replete with a Hitleresque toothbrush moustache, he had to endure appalling persecution under the Nazis on account of his homosexuality, and conditions of abject poverty even after the war, which, as providence would have it, brought him to India in the late ’50s.
In Delhi, he started coaching local youngsters, and became a well-respected coach who is credited with establishing one of the first scientific training regimens for top-level national athletes in India. In an interview with The Age, J S Saini, 83, former national coach, described him as the father figure of Indian athletics. The same article attempts to trace a lineage of Indian running from Peltzer, down to P T Usha who came through a programme at the club that carried forward his legacy, to Usha’s protege, Tintu Luka, who was an 800m semi-finalist at these Games, and whose full-bodied running form owes much to the methodologies introduced by Peltzer.
Otto Peltzer Memorial road races are still held in Delhi to this day and much has changed at the Olympics since Peltzer’s time. According to gay historian, Tony Scupham Bilton, the 2000 Sydney Games were the ‘gayest’ Games ever, with 42 Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) athletes, although only eight were publicly out at the time. At Athens in 2004, there were six participating LGBT women tennis players, including Martina Navratilova in her only Olympic appearance, and eventual silver-medallist and former World No. 1, Amélie Mauresmo.
The Cinderella story from the 2008 Beijing Olympics was that of diver Matthew Mitcham who had already made history competing as its only openly gay male athlete. He clearly wasn’t prepared to let that incidental detail become his only legacy as he won gold at the 10m platform event tallying the highest single-dive score ever in Olympic history, in the process preventing a clean sweep of the diving gold medals by the Chinese. He prompted broadcaster NBC to apologise for appearing to censor all references to his sexuality during their Olympic coverage. In London, Mitcham, having battled injury over the past year, failed to qualify for the final, but he will always remain an Olympic gold medallist.
These figures, constantly augmented each year with even more willing to stand up and be counted, will never be definitive. An interesting incident from the Games involved Grindr, a gay dating application for mobile phones, that crashed in East London within hours of teams arriving at the Olympic village, presumably because of the influx of fresh traffic. While that account may have been an exaggeration, with a record 150,000 condoms handed out, the London Games have been dubbed the raunchiest ever by the tabloid press.
With most athletes in peak physical condition and with hormones flowing unabated, it’s no wonder that promiscuity would be a prominent feature at the Games, and that same-sex action on the side would play a starring role. Carrying over a tradition that was only recently started at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, we now have the Pride House, a dedicated safe haven for all LGBT athletes and their supporters.
The well-attended Pride House events at London bear testimony to this growing tribe of LGBT Olympians, even if only a handful are openly gay. The next Winter Games in Russia in 2014 has already attracted some negative publicity because of plans for a Pride House being struck down by authorities who deemed it to be ‘homosexual propaganda of an extreme kind’. The forces of repression still seem to hold sway in some places.
Gay athletes remain in the closet for reasons that range from merely wanting to keep a personal matter private, to the fear that being outed could derail their careers. Due to negative stereotypes that continue to persist, sexual orientation is sometimes viewed as a marker for suspect athletic ability. Male athletes, particularly, have talked of being ostracised by teammates and passed over by coaches. This explains why so many gay men choose individual sport over team sports, where a culture of perceived masculinity continues to thrive. Some athletes may also feel that coming out would draw the kind of unnecessary attention that would detract from their training. The ramifications of disclosure can sometimes go beyond the field.
Mitcham, for all his Chinese-felling ways, didn’t really end up with a roster of endorsements after his golden triumph, unlike other aquatic Australian heroes like Ian Thorpe, who is widely considered to be straight (although he does attract his fair share of innuendo). Certainly athletes in so-called ‘gay-friendly’ sports like gymnastics and diving seem to invite the ‘Is he? Isn’t he?’ kind of endless speculation about their sexual orientation, irrespective of whether they are truly gay or not, which is yet another reason to not provide even more grist to the churning mills.
Gay sportspeople have battled homophobia for much too long, and the institutionalised prejudices cannot be wished away with a wand. Baby steps are what it will take. The exploits of the out athletes at London 2012 demonstrate quite emphatically that irrespective of who you are, you can strive for the best, and pip all others at the post in an arena that is synonymous with the highest level of excellence. Having spent years in training just towards a spot in an Olympics team, the additional burden of being in the closet can sometimes spur athletes to better face the odds, or have them fall away defeated.
More and more young people are taking the bulls by the horns, and this is reflected in increased visibility at the biggest sporting coliseums. Mitcham revels in being a role-model and a global sports icon. At the Delhi Commonwealth Games, while his teammates worried about creaky spring-boards or faulty scoring devices, or an errant stomach virus, he soaked in the attention of local gay boys who had turned up in large numbers to egg him on, and ogle at him along the way.
It seems unlikely that Indian sport, already languishing due to official apathy and a deplorable lack of infrastructure, will throw up any role models for the queer community. What is perhaps an indirect indictment of Indian intolerance is the fact that the South African flag-bearer at the London Games was track star Caster Semenya, who was embroiled in a gender testing controversy, but was finally cleared to compete as a woman after a long procedural struggle, during which her country stood by her, every inch of the way.
In sharp contrast, the last few months have seen the denigration of Pinky Pramanik by an intrusive media because of similar ‘inconclusive’ gender tests, the kind that also resulted in sporting hero Santhi Soundarajan ending up firing clay at a brick-kiln to make ends meet. They were simply cast aside.
A country that treats its sporting stars with so much derision and insensitivity probably deserved an eyesore like Madhura Honey gatecrashing the opening ceremony. Meanwhile, the triumphs of LGBT athletes elsewhere will continue to feed the imagination and fuel the ambitions of a multitude of queer Indians who are now ready to take their destinies, sporting or otherwise, into their own hands.
About Pride House
The Olympic Pride House is a dedicated temporary location which plays host to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes attending the Olympics or Paralympics in the host city. The first was organised for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
The Vancouver location of Pride House was housed within Qmunity center. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Vancouver and Whistler Pride Houses served as venues for LGBT sportspeople, coaches, visitors and their friends, families and supporters, and became the first Pride Houses at an Olympics.
Although both Pride Houses offered information and support services to LGBT athletes and attendees, the Whistler location in Pan Pacific Village Centre had a “celebratory theme”, while the Vancouver venue emphasised education about Vancouver’s LGBT community and, for non-Canadian athletes, information about immigration to and asylum in Canada, including “legal resources” from Egale Canada and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (IGLA).
London 2012 too had a Pride House. But an attempt to obtain a Pride House at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was struck down by the Ministry of Justice, which refused to approve the registration of the NGO set up to organise the Pride House. The ban was upheld on the basis of the Pride House inciting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation which can undermine the security of the Russian society and the state, provoke social-religious hatred, which is the feature of the extremist character of the activity”.