Campbell Harrison, left, and his boyfriend Justin Maire share a kiss after Harrison won the Oceania men's boulder and lead qualifier for the Paris 2024 Olympics. | IFSC live stream

For eight years, Campbell Harrison had been “desperately dreaming” of reaching the Olympic Games, as the climber phrased it on Instagram following the Oceania qualifier for Paris 2024, held in Melbourne in November.

That was the day his dream became a reality.

Having experienced intense disappointment at missing out on Tokyo 2020, Harrison found himself lying third in the standings after the qualifier’s boulder section and needing to dig deep.

He responded perfectly, producing a perfect 100 score in his favored lead discipline, rocketing him to the summit and booking an Australian berth in the men’s competition at the Games.

In February, the Australian Olympic Committee confirmed the 26-year-old’s selection. “It’s gonna be so fetch!” he wrote.

Harrison is making it happen, unapologetically so, and it’s not just about elevating the profile of climbing in his homeland and beyond.

The thumbnail picture he chose for that now-pinned celebration post in November shows him kissing his boyfriend, Justin, a screenshot taken from the live broadcast — the event photographers caught the moment too.

The newly crowned champion, one of four climbers from Australia and New Zealand who grabbed Olympic spots that weekend, says he could not have achieved his dream without the strong support of the man he loves.

“From what I could see, every other athlete who qualified whose partner was there, kissed their partner on the live stream, so it was very common,” Harrison tells Outsports.

“But when it’s two men, it catches attention for sure! And that can be a good and powerful thing.

“I’m glad all the feedback that I’ve seen has been positive. But it’s interesting how this one really caught people’s eye — the same-sex couple.”

An uplifting response

The power of Harrison’s visibility is being recognized at this week’s seventh annual edition of the Australian Pride in Sport Awards, also being held in Melbourne, which is his hometown.

He is shortlisted in the LGBTQ+ Role Model category alongside field hockey internationals Davis Atkin and Greta Hayes and the founder of the World Gay Boxing Championships, Martin Stark.

Harrison ventured into this part of sport back in 2019 when he accepted an invitation to speak on a “Climbing With Pride” panel organized by social and advocacy group Climbing QTs.

He would later write in a blog that the LGBTQ+ inclusive group took “a dice roll” by reaching out to him. When he looks back now, he’s so glad that they thought he was worth the gamble.

“That panel was a huge moment in my life, because it was when I openly stepped into the public sphere as a queer person,” he says.

“I wasn’t in the closet by any means but that was the first time that I fully confirmed that I was gay — and with my parents there. It had never been a secret, but they didn’t really ask the question and I didn’t have a partner before.

“My confidence developed over time as I became more comfortable with myself. And the response I’ve had from the queer community for being more vocal about who I am has been so empowering, especially since qualifying for the Olympics. I’ve been totally overwhelmed.

“The number of queer people who have messaged me to say how much it means to them or on my Crowdfunder donations, where there are Pride flags on every other comment… it’s been really special.”

Visibility among the elite matters so much, says Harrison. “I’d love more queer people to see sport as something they can really pursue at a high level and that they don’t have to be afraid of how they might be treated,” he adds.

He is certainly providing those reassurances in competitive climbing, which is still relatively new on the sporting scene and had its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2021.

Harrison was 14 when he took part in the World Youth Championship in Singapore and as he has progressed through, he has seen climbing grow rapidly in popularity, particularly with LGBTQ people.

“So many of us have found community and confidence within climbing and organizations like Climbing QTs. Certainly in Melbourne and in Australia, it’s really opened itself up,” he says, noting how inclusive messages have been amplified by state organizers and increasingly at a national level too.

Could the International Federation of Sport Climbing better reflect that commitment, perhaps during Pride Month? On Valentine’s Day, the photo of his post-qualification kiss with Justin was one of several shared on the federation’s social media feeds, but Harrison struggles to think of other acknowledgements of its LGBTQ family.

“There’s definitely a lot more that could be done and now that I think about it, there probably is a greater responsibility of the international federation to push these issues,” Harrison says. “To give them credit, there’s a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion in terms of women, and about having greater cultural and race representation.

“But yeah, I think sexuality and gender identity is an important aspect of that too.”

The personal is political

Traveling for his sport sometimes takes Harrison to places where LGBTQ communities are facing mounting challenges.

He admits he felt deeply conflicted about attending the 2021 World Championships in Moscow, while more recently he has been in action at back-to-back IFSC World Cup events in China, where LGBTQ+ rights are noticeably regressing.

Even the next destination on his itinerary — Salt Lake City in Utah — has new restrictions pending, with an anti-trans bathroom ban due to take effect from May 1.

Meanwhile, climbing is beginning to take off in Saudi Arabia, and Harrison was among more than 40 athletes and public figures connected to the sport who recently signed an open letter opposing the IFSC’s decision to organize an event at the NEOM Beach Masters, on ecological and ethical grounds.

Put together by French-led organization ACTS, and quoting Amnesty International and ALQST, an independent local human rights NGO, the letter criticized the NEOM megacity project on ecological grounds and labelled it “a violation of human rights.”

The authors wrote: “The climbing community cannot accept that its federation is promoting a project of the sort from the Saudi dictatorial regime.”

As a conservation lover who also happens to be LGBTQ, Harrison didn’t hesitate to put his name to the letter. “As I’m getting older and more politically aware, these issues are something that I have more consideration for.

“It’s tough because the opportunities for athletes in smaller or developing sports can be limited as it is. So sometimes when these huge opportunities are presented to you, it can be really hard to weigh up the pros and cons.

“Ideally, the federation would be supporting us in not having to make these decisions.”

Amid all the jet-setting, the training, the highs and lows, Harrison takes great comfort in knowing he has Justin in his corner. They have been together for four years and documenting their adventures on social media comes as naturally as that smooch after his qualification success.

But as the occasional reaction shows, the climb towards equality is far from finished.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I love how political your feed has gotten.’ And I’m like, is that political? A photo of me on the beach with my boyfriend, of me going on a hike with my partner?

“Or is it just that you’re not really used to being exposed to queer people existing as humans?

“We’re so accustomed to burying it deep and hiding it for such a long part of our lives and by extension, a lot of people aren’t used to seeing it just displayed as normal. That’s something I try to hold on to, and never shy away from.

“We want to share what makes us feel happy and what gives us joy.”

In essence, it’s the epitome of Outsports’ ethos of “courage is contagious.”

“And I’m doing my best to spread that courage around,” insists Harrison. “I’ve seen how powerful that is for people.”

Follow Campbell Harrison on Instagram and TikTok. You can also support his Paris 2024 journey via his Crowdfunder.