When diver Matthew Mitcham arrived in Beijing to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics, few people gave him a very good shot at winning gold. Host-country China was talking openly about its goal of winning all eight diving golds, and when it came time for the men’s 10-meter platform, they had won the first seven diving events.
For his part, Mitcham had earlier that week placed 16th in the 3-meter springboard, failing to make the final. He had fared better in the prelims and semifinal of the 10-meter platform, finishing second to Chinese divers in both.
Yet going into the last dive of the 10-meter platform — the final diving event of the Games — all seemed lost for Mitcham. Chinese diver Zhou Lüxin had a commanding lead. For Mitcham to win gold, he would need Zhou to flop in his final dive, and Mitcham would need to perform the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Mitcham’s two and a half somersault with two and a half twists in the pike position earned him an eye-popping score of 112.10, literally the highest score ever awarded to a single dive at the Olympics. And when all was said and done, he had won the gold by just 4.8 points.
Mitcham broke down in tears as soon as he got out of the water, assuming he’d locked up the silver medal. He had no idea until the scores came through that his tears were golden.
Making it that much more magical, Mitcham had come out publicly just weeks before the Summer Olympics. While same-sex sexual activity was technically legal in China, the culture was (and continues to be, to some extent) inhospitable for gay people. There are bans on same-sex marriage, gay family-building and public expressions of homosexuality. Conversion therapy, however, is legal.
When Mitcham won Olympic gold he’d never won a medal at a World Championship or Commonwealth Games.
To take down Team China in their own pool, with his boyfriend sitting in the stands, makes Mitcham forever an inspiration and a hero.
And it was truly one of the great underdog stories in sports history.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following a review prompted by reader comments, this story has been edited to focus exclusively on the accomplishments of Matthew Mitcham, an inspiration for LGBTQ people around the world, who each face cultural and institutional discrimination to this day.