Lifestyle

Team LGBT: Rio Olympics Features Record Number Of Out Athletes 

by Eric Sasson

August 13, 2016
Charley Walters

Though the run-up to the Olympic Games in Rio had more than its share of hiccups (and the games themselves have already endured a few horror stories), there's plenty to celebrate — and not just the numerous success stories of Team USA.

The 2016 Olympics have featured a historic number of out LGBT athletes competing — at least 43, or about double the number who competed in London in 2012. Given the success of LGBT Olympic athletes who’ve managed to hold on to their endorsements after coming out, the 2016 games surely will be remembered as arguably the first when it was possible to be out, proud, and hailed as a high-performing athlete.

GOOD chatted with Olympic analyst and LGBT expert Charley Walters, who has attended and covered the last eight Olympic Games. He’s currently in Rio covering the games again while focusing on LGBT-related stories.

GOOD: Let's talk a little bit about the games so far. Which LGBT athletes already have proven themselves or won medals?

Charley Walters: LGBT athletes are having great success at these games! The U.S. women’s soccer team featuring Megan Rapinoe advanced to the quarterfinals (before losing to Sweden). Tom Daley got his bronze, and his fiancé Dustin Lance Black was there to cheer him on. Robbie Manson from New Zealand reached the finals in men’s double sculls rowing. And one of my favorite stories unrelated to a medal was the surprise proposal from Marjorie Enya to Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo, making the statement “I wanted to show people that love wins.”

Overall, it’s turning out to be a great Olympics for “Team LGBT,” as many people are referring to them. I love this reference as it allows the athletes to be a part of several embracing communities at once — as their sport, as their nation, and as LGBT.

Team USA’s Megan Rapinoe. (Photo by Joel Solomon)

This Olympics holds the record for the most out gay and lesbian athletes — 43 by last count, although that number may have already risen. Do you think the tide is turning for LGBT athletes in competitive sports?

Last I looked we were at 45, with a few more stories emerging throughout the games. The rise in numbers confirms that the tides are indeed turning, and I hope that we’ll start to see any sort of leftover discrimination in the multi-country judged sports like gymnastics and, for winter, figure skating, break down as a result. Add to that the fact that we’ve seen at least one athlete come out in almost all of the major professional sporting disciplines in the past two years — unlike the Olympics, these ones are mostly male — and I believe we are on the right track.

There are more than a dozen out male athletes at the games, and yet none of them are American. It's probably safe to say there might be a few LGBT athletes on Team USA who have not come out. Do you still think it's easier for female athletes to come out in the U.S. than for male athletes? If so, why?

It is definitely safe to say that. However, I will stand by my statement that it is truly a personal decision and up to the individual. I do not think someone should be “forced out” for the progress of a movement, but I do hope that progress will organically encourage them, as we’ve seen in so many other fields and professions. The “closet” stories I’ve heard at these games have actually been about women too, and the ones I’ve spoken to personally have mostly said something along the lines of, “It is part of who I am, but it does not effect my performance in my sport and I don’t want the media to be a distraction right now.” Historically, more females have come out in sports than males, so I do think that this proves that the concept of “role models” in this topic is important. (Once) one or more people decide to pave the way, it leads to a road for many others. I hope and predict these numbers will balance out over time.

Marjorie Enya (right) and Isadora Cerullo. (Getty Images)

Who are the LGBT athletes we should most be watching out for this Olympics? And who may be under the radar and might surprise us?

While the U.S. media is very focused on returning athletes, I would encourage people to watch out for first-time LGBT Olympians, especially the ones from smaller nations where equality in general may not be as accepted back home. I will be (and have been) rooting for India’s track and fielder Dutee Chand, swimmer Amini Fonua from Tonga, and javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen from South Africa. Based on some conversations here, I also predict that at least one more major and well-known athlete will come out before the end of these Olympics. It’s not my place to say who, but I’ll be glad to tell you after.

While Brazil has made great strides in LGBT rights in the past decade, the Olympics are coming at a time when violence against the LGBT community has been on the rise. Do you think Brazil is addressing this concern, and are the athletes themselves taking precautions?

I do not think someone should be ‘forced out’ for the progress of a movement, but I do hope that progress will organically encourage them.

When I was preparing to come here to Rio, I definitely made a goal to be cautious and on guard. I have to say that I’ve been here for nine days now and have felt nothing but safe in both the gay and other areas. Interestingly, the location of the Pride House in Lapa is actually one of the more unsafe areas in town, but I did not feel LGBT discrimination there and am so proud of what that group has produced under some very challenging financial and political circumstances. Next week we will be creating a special video at Pride House for the #RestInPride campaign we started last month post-Orlando. I am excited to help make this statement of solidarity in this particular time in the context of the current world’s biggest stage.

What do you still think needs to happen in order for most LGBT athletes to come out and feel safe in competitive sports?

We all need to support these athletes in every way. This includes the media, who should be fact-checking and making sure they get the story right: husbands vs. wives, significant others, and giving them equal screen time and mention regardless of orientation. So cheer even louder. Tweet them even more. Applaud them for not only being excellent at their sport, but for going the additional mile by being comfortable and public about who they were born to be. That way they will hopefully realize that they are true role models to the next generation of LGBT athletes and Olympic hopefuls.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the Daily Beast editor using Grindr to entrap LGBT athletes in Rio?

From an on-ground perspective, these Olympics have been ALL about celebrating one another.  Despite some very challenging circumstances, so far the Rio Games have produced a wealth of inspiring, positive stories of individual and team success.  The Daily Beast incident was a harsh reminder that this Olympic bubble of peace and celebration is not immune to evil.  It was an absolutely unethical use of journalism and I hope there will be repercussions.  I also hope the rest of the media covering these Olympics will now be even more motivated to get their facts correct about race, gender, and orientation, so that we can further elevate the stories of those athletes that have chosen to compete as their full and true selves – while also being sensitive to those that are on a different part of that path. 

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Team LGBT: Rio Olympics Features Record Number Of Out Athletes