September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Personal best

By |2018-03-21T18:50:44+01:00August 21st, 2012|"That's Queer"|
A-ok for Italian Olympic "swim" lovers Filippo Magnini and Federica Pelligrini.

ome of you may have heard about the crash of Grindr, the popular gay app chat that briefly stalled just a few hours after the arrival of Olympic athletes in London. Founded in 2009, U.S.-based Grindr was created to help gays connect. It’s been called a 21st-century “digital bathhouse” and now has some four million users.

The connection between the crash and the start of the Olympics, if any, is up for debate. Some suggested it was tied to the volume of gay tourists attending the Summer Games. Others said that it was just a publicity stunt to promote a new version of the app. If it was PR, well done.

All of which begs a different but relevant question: How many gay Olympic athletes were there? According to the website, 21 openly gay athletes competed in London. But a statistically accurate number is hard to establish since most gay competitors remain unwilling to face the homophobia of the sports world and stay hidden.

Every four years, the summer Olympics raise interesting questions about who we are as human beings and what it is we’re trying to achieve. Ideally, the Olympics were intended to create a discrimination-free “level playing field” for all competitors, a way to celebrate both the human body and spirit.

The Olympics have also played a critical role in both social justice and the fight against racism. American sprinter Jesse Owens’ success at the 1936 Berlin Olympics vexed Hitler’s Aryan obsession. South Africa made a triumphant return to the Games in 1992 after a four-decade International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban for the country’s Apartheid policies. Saudi Arabia finally allowed a woman to compete in London after years of rejecting IOC gender equality demands.

Gender is at the forefront of the Olympic debate, with many expressing concern that woman are systematically hindered from doing their best and that the vaunted Olympic “level playing field exists only for men.

“Although the Olympic Charter prohibits gender discrimination in sport, the IOC often fails to enforce it,” writes the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a human rights group founded by British gender rights activist and politician Tatchell. “Historically,” it adds, “the President of the IOC presents the gold medal to the winner of the men’s marathon but not to the winner of the women’s marathon… This gender discrimination signals to the world that the men’s marathon is deemed more prestigious than the women’s marathon, which is an insult to women athletes and to all women everywhere.”

There’s also gender apartheid. Though the Saudis finally agreed to IOC demands on allowing women, they insisted their female athletes shroud their bodies head-to-toe and be accompanied by male guardians at all times. Iran forcibly practices gender segregation toward participants and spectators, forcing women athletes to cover their entire bodies. Women competitors are can’t have male coaches or participate in events that involve physical contact with male sports officials.

Discrimination against women remains the primary gender issue in Olympic sports.

By contrast, the focus on gay issues has only just begun. Many fans and athletes, both gay and straight, insist that athletes’ sexual preferences are competitively irrelevant. From the perspective of gay athletes, this is just another version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” From schoolyard to the Olympics, sport has been and remains the untouchable ivory tower of homophobia. Love and sex among straight athletes, take Italian swimmers Francesca Pellegrini and Filippo Magnini, are out in the open as lovers and subject to endless gossip (was Pellegrini having too much or too little sex before the Games? asked Italian media). Gay athletes remain mostly hidden.

Mathew Mitcham, an Australian who describes himself on Twitter as, “…that gay 2008-Olympic-gold-medal-winning diver dude” told the Sydney Morning Herald in a meandering interview he hoped sexual identity would one day “become as unimportant and uninteresting as hair color, or eye color or even just gender in general.”

But, he added, until athletes could “come out without fear of persecution or fear of lost sponsorship income and stuff like that, or fear of being comfortable in the team environment, I don’t mind attention being brought to my sexuality in the hope that it might make other people feel more comfortable … in being comfortable enough about who they are in their sporting environment.”

So it is that the “level playing field” battle continues. Though the Olympic movement has made remarkable forward strides against discrimination, it still remains well short of posting its personal best.

About the Author:

Mark Campbell wrote the “That’s Queer” column for neearlu a decade, ending in 2020.