(This story was published in 2004).
The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens will host 10,500 athletes from 199 countries, but there are only 11 openly and publicly gay jocks among them, proving once again that sports remain the final closet in contemporary life.
The 11 are: Robert Dover (American equestrian rider and subject of a terrific profile); Guenter Seidel (an American on the equestrian team), Carl Hester (British dressage team), Blyth Tait (a champion New Zealand horseman), Rob Newton (British hurdler); tennis players Amelie Mauresmo, Conchita Martinez and Martina Navratilova, Dutch swimmer Johan Kenkhuis (who came out earlier this year, and won won silver in the men's 4x100 freestyle relay), German cyclist Judith Arndt and female German fencer Imke Duplitzer (who lost in the quarterfinals). There were seven at the Sydney 2000 Games.
Arndt's sexuality became very public on the second day of competition in Athens when she won the silver in the women's road race, then popped the finger to the German Cycling Federation as she crossed the finish line. According to Deutsche Welle news service, "Arndt was disconsolate with her silver medal following the race, accusing the German Cycling Federation of squandering a chance to win gold by excluding her girlfriend, sprinter Petra Rossner, from the Olympic team. "Of course we're happy to have won the silver medal, but actually, we've lost the gold," Arndt said after the race. "If Petra Rossner had been nominated, we could've had the gold. She would've been our trump card, because she's the fastest."
I want to stress that these 11 are publicly out; there might be others who are out to teammates or their sport, but haven’t yet reached the media radar screen (drop me a line if I’ve missed anyone; a huge thanks to those readers who already contributed).
Dover told the Associated Press there are scores more not ready to be 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."
Simple math and common sense will tell you that many more gay or lesbian athletes will be competing. If 10% of the athletes are gay, that’s 1,000 people. Too high? Try 5%, which leaves 500. Still too high? OK, 1% still leaves 100. And even one-half of 1% still means there are 50 gay or lesbian athletes. Imagine the public attention if 50 athletes held a press conference in Athens to declare their homosexuality.
There is also at least one anomaly: U.S. 800-meter runner Derrick Peterson. In 2002. Peterson got some attention when he told Genre magazine, “"I hate labels. I don't really care what people think of my sexual orientation, I like men and women. One thing I will say for sure, I'm definitely not heterosexual!" A few weeks after the article appeared, Peterson reversed himself, saying he wasn’t gay and professing his love for his girlfriend; he said his past comments about being with men was part of an “experimental phase.” Gay? Straight? Try confused.
The lack of publicly visible gay athletes in Athens is ironic. The original Olympics, which spanned 1,200 years, were in many ways the first circuit parties. They were all-male affairs (including spectators) and the athletes competed in the nude. The cult of the body reigned supreme and the Greeks were very comfortable with men being in homosexual relationships. Athletes devoted full-time to training and were the celebrities of their day.
This history makes the current state of affairs all that more depressing. British hurdler Newton, for example, told Instinct magazine, “I don’t know any other gay athletes, if there are any.” And he decried the very closeted nature of sports, attributing it to “stigma. It’s 2004, for God’s sake. I’m not treated differently, so other athletes should see me as an inspiration.”
The reasons athletes stay in closet cross sport and geographic lines: fear of the reaction from teammates, management and fans; fear of losing endorsements and sponsorships; and a general fear of sticking out when single-minded devotion is needed to succeed. This litany will remain until more athletes come out and the result is one big yawn.
Editor's note: When this story first appeared, we only knew of four. Thanks to readers, seven more (Guenter Seidel, Carl Hester, Judith Arndt, Blyth Tait, Conchita Martinez, Imke Duplitzer and Johan Kenkhuis) were added to the list.