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Gay ex-Olympic gymnast Kris Burley remembers the isolation, fear

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Kris Burley was a successful Canadian gymnast but not comfortable coming out to his team. He hopes to make a difference for a new generation of athletes.

Kris Burley competed for Canada at the 1996 Olympics
Kris Burley competed for Canada at the 1996 Olympics

Kris Burley had a very successful career as a gymnast, ranking in the Top 10 in the world in floor exercise, winning a slew of national awards and competing at the 1996 Olympics for Team Canada. Despite these accomplishments, Burley felt isolated and was occasionally bullied for being gay, and he stayed deep in the closet.

The low point came when he was physically attacked by a teammate.

"I was assaulted once by a teammate and it was horrible," Burley told Outsports. "What was even worse about the whole thing was that I took the flack for it from a lot of the people within that community. It was a difficult time for me because not only did I feel completely isolated, but that solidified the fact that I could never be out in that team environment.

"In my mind I wasn't like them, so there was a distance because I wasn't open about who I truly was. ... I didn't want to go out drinking and pick up girls like a lot of the other guys did."

The assault incident is still so uncomfortable for him to discuss, that years later Burley is deliberately vague about what specifically happened. It showed him the corrosive power of homophobia in sports. It also is why at age 40, and 15 years removed from last competing, Burley is enthusiastically supporting a new initiative by the Canadian Olympic Committee aimed at fighting LGBT bias in sports. The initiative includes a partnership with the You Can Play project and the LGBT-rights group Egale Canada.

Burley is among those tasked with coming up with specific programs and goals to be used by gay athletes and straight allies in creating visibility and policies and educating the sports world, with the goal of making LGBT athletes feel comfortable and safe in sports.

"I know what it's like to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at times in my daily training," says Burley. "It pushed me away from being able to focus on my performance and held me apart quite a bit from the rest of my team. It's why programs like this are important because it allows people to be themselves. ... Sports should be a great experience but in many cases for me, sports was really tough."

final kris

(Photo by Patrick Lacsina)

Burley knew he was different from an early age.

"I grew up in Nova Scotia where all the boys play hockey," Burley said. "I was doing gymnastics from the age of 5. But guys played hockey and girls did gymnastics or figure skating. I was doing an all-girls sport. I fact, I started with an all-girls club because they had no boys club for me. I was teased and bullied when I was in elementary school. That's how I started off in my sport."

Once he started winning as a gymnast, Burley became accepted as an athlete. But he never felt comfortable as an athlete who was gay. While he never came out to his whole Canadian national team, he shared private details with some teammates who deduced he was gay and spread the word. He felt separate from his teammates and any thoughts he had of coming out were quickly dispelled when he saw how another gymnast was treated.

This gymnast won a gold medal in 1996 and through this gained confidence to reveal that he was gay. It did not go well, Burley remembers. "People would constantly make fun of him behind his back. He was kind of shunned in a way. I remember seeing that and thinking 'I don't want that to happen to me' in a judged sport where internationally your reputation is a factor. It was just better to stay in the closet and focus on my performance."

After retiring from competitive gymnastics on Jan. 1, 2000, at age 25, Burley joined Cirque du Soleil and it was here that he was first accepted for being gay. It showed him how far behind society sports was and he still sees that as the case in 2014. "Times have changed certainly in 15 years but there's still more work to do," he said. "We do need athletes as role models because identity informs performance. Athletes are more than just performance vehicles. Who they are and what they are off the court does inform their performance. I think a holistic approach to athletes is important."

Burley is blown away by out-and-proud LGBT athletes like Canadian gymnast Rosie Cossar, with whom he shared the stage at the announcement of the Canadian Olympic Committee initiative in Toronto. He called Cossar and others like her "courageous, pioneering athletes who have the courage to be out and still doing sport, in a judged sport of all things, and to go out there and be a beacon for other people. That really has an important impact."

He sees the initiative as a chance to make a difference and make Canada the pioneer and role model for the rest of the world. He is eager to get started and come up with ideas, plans and policies that will resonate.

"This is not a gay issue. Athletes need to fundamentally be at their best to perform and any athlete can relate to that. This is one of those final hurdles in the sports community to bring them into 2014," Burley said. "The athletes of the world can really get behind this."

Kris Burley is a former Canadian Olympic gymnast. He can be reached via email: kris@artuitivegroup.com.

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