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In Beijing Olympics, only 10 openly gay athletes

Number of gay and lesbian athletes at the 2008 Games is on par with 2004 but includes only one man. In addition, there is one bisexual softball player.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

Of the 10,708 athletes who will march into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium on Friday, Outsports is aware of only 10 who are publicly gay, on par with the 2004 Games. There is also a bisexual American softball player.

Of the 10 publicly gay Olympians this year, only one is a man: Matthew Mitcham (Australia, diving). Mitcham stunned the diving world by winning the gold medal Aug. 23 in the 10-meter platform. (See the complete rundown on how gay athletes fared this year).

The out lesbians are: Judith Arndt (Germany, cycling), Imke Duplitzer (Germany, fencing), Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg (Norway, handball and a lesbian couple), Natasha Kai (U.S., soccer), Lauren Lappin (U.S., softball); Victoria "Vickan" Svensson (Sweden, soccer); Rennae Stubbs (Australia, tennis) and Linda Bresonik (Germany, soccer).

This original article mentioned five out athletes until a reader alerted us about Kai, who told NBC about her "nasty break-up with my girlfriend." And a huge tip of the hat to Malinda Lo of AfterEllen.com, who compiled the list of nine lesbian and one bisexual athletes, four of who were not in this original article.

Another reader also alerted us to U.S. softball player Vicky Galindo, a bisexual profiled in the Advocate magazine. Galindo was among Olympic athletes who signed an open letter urging a truce in Sudan's Darfur region during the Games.


Matthew Mitcham will be followed closely by the Outsports Olympics 2008 blog

Norwegian handball players Gro Hammerseng, left, and Katja Nyberg are a couple.
In contrast, there were 11 openly gay athletes in Athens in 2004 (two more, basketball star Sheryl Swoopes and Australian gymnast Ji Wallace, came out publicly afterwards) and seven at the Sydney Games in 2000.

The number for Beijing comes with a huge caveat and must be seen in context. There is no doubt there are many more gays and lesbians competing in Beijing, but these 10 are the only ones we can determine to be “publicly out,” having discussed their sexuality openly in some manner. For all we know, there is a gay rower or badminton player somewhere known as gay within his or her sport, but not in a larger public context. (E-mail us if you know of an out athlete not on this list.)

Simple math illustrates the likely range of gay athletes in Beijing, using the 10,708 total participants. If 10% were gay, this would mean 1,070 athletes. Even the extremely low range of 1% would leave 107 gay athletes. Researchers such as Eric Anderson of the University of Bath in England (and a longtime Outsports contributor) say that the percentage of gays in sports mirrors the percentage in the entire population (estimated at between 2% and 10%).

But 10 is still a disappointment given the progress made by out gays and lesbians in sports the past decade. Some of the drop is the result of athletes like Swoopes and Wallace, both medalists in 2004, not on their nation’s Olympic team this year. In addition, two openly gay swimmers competed in the U.S. swimming trials, though neither qualified for the team. None of the three lesbian tennis players from 2004 (Amelie Mauresmo, Conchita Martinez and Martina Navratilova) are in Beijing. And none of the four equestrian athletes from 2004 is competing this year either due to injury or retirement (New Zealand’s Blyth Tait, an equestrian athlete in 2004, is in Beijing but as a team manager).

“Strangely, this year there are no out riders competing on any team,” equestrian star Robert Dover said in an e-mail to Outsports. Dover retired in 2005 after competing in six Olympics. “There is one rider who is married, but is having an affair with a guy, but so far he's not coming forward about it. Sad!”

Keeping a secret

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.

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," Dover said. "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."

For example, Outsports is aware of a lesbian athlete who is not out, competing in her first Games. Someone who knows her well (and whose name I am omitting in order to not reveal her sport), told me: “She is religious and close to her mother. … She is also somewhat shy and fragile. This Beijing thing is going to be a major cultural shock. She came out of nowhere … and went from nothing to this. … But when she does come out, and she will, she will be an incredible role model.”

A lesbian team sport athlete, in her second Olympics, is also not out publicly, despite not being shy about going to gay bars (we are keeping her name secret since Outsports does not out anyone). A bouncer at a gay club in the South wrote Outsports about her during the 2004 Athens Games: She “came in several times along with most of the team. She never made a big deal about who she was or where she was going, and of course seeing female athletes in the bar was commonplace. She hooked up occasionally, and I watched her make out a few times.”

A 'gay sport'

In the case of men’s gymnastics, Brandon Triche, who was out on his team in college, said he knows of prominent former U.S. gymnasts who are gay but closeted, in some case having sham marriages. These athletes, Triche said, are likely to never come out.

One reason for the secrecy in gymnastics, Triche says, is 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. Triche disputes this perception.

“I think that those who keep their sexuality secret and act overly heterosexual hinder the sport,” Triche said. “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.”

In a classic Catch-22, the reluctance of gay athletes to come out will be tough to overcome until more like them come forward and prove that being a “gay athlete” is not an oxymoron or hindrance to success.

Outsports Olympics 2008 blog

Editor's note: This article has been updated from the original to include new names. No other information has been changed.