U.S. middle distance runner Nick Symmonds has always been one of my favorite athletes for not being afraid to speak out on a host of issues, especially his support for gay rights. On Tuesday, the two-time Olympian announced that he will retire from the sport after the 2017 outdoor season.
In 2013, after Russia had passed a series of anti-gay laws, Symmonds won a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Track Championships being held in Moscow. He publicly dedicated his medal to his LGBT friends. His actions garnered him widespread attention worldwide. “I was overwhelmed by the amount of positive support I received,” he told Outsports.
In an interview I did with Symmonds, 33, a few months after the Moscow meet, he explained why he took the action in Moscow:
“A couple of factors went into that. Originally I was focused on winning a medal. That was my job. That's what I trained for and that's what I was in Russia to do. I also feel that in an ideal world, we'd be able to just put our differences aside and compete at these international competitions for the love of sport and pride.
“But when I was out in Russia and saw firsthand how gays were treated, in the streets and being shoved to the ground just for kissing one another or holding hands, the amount of hatred and intolerance that was actually out there, I said this is just so wrong.
“Added to that was the medal around my neck, knowing I had taken care of the job I was there to do, I felt that now was the time to make this medal mean more than just running around in circles twice really fast. It needs to be about bringing some awareness to the intolerance I had seen out there.”
Symmonds also had advice to LGBT athletes in track and field who were considering coming out.
“I would say that being openly gay in track and field is going to be a tough road at times. But we need people to bravely come out and show people that just because you're gay doesn't mean you can't run fast.
“I look to these other sports where people have come out, like basketball and rugby and football and certainly there is always going to be some bigotry and people saying negative comments. But ultimately the biggest thing we can do is have role models who are gay in the sports we like to look up to.”
Symmonds was one of my all-time favorite athletes to interview because he was not hesitant to discuss his views on LGBT issues at length. We need more allies like him.