The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games were a remarkable testament to the LGBTQ community, as a record number of publicly out athletes competed and succeeded. These athletes generated massive headlines across the media throughout the Tokyo Games, prompting some outlets to refer to them as “The Rainbow Games.”
GLAAD and Outsports have discussed all of the amazing LGBTQ stories to come out of the Tokyo Olympics, and we’ve selected these 10 memorable and newsworthy moments to remember these Games.
“The record number of out athletes at these Games is a powerful signal to the world that LGBTQ people belong and can succeed as their authentic selves,” said GLAAD spokesperson Barbara Simon. “Many out medalists also used their literal platforms to speak up for LGBTQ youth and acceptance, lifting up the most vulnerable around the globe in their moment of personal achievement. They represent what the Olympics and Paralympics should be: a celebration of inclusion, diversity and unity.”
Before the Olympics, GLAAD, along with Athlete Ally and Pride House, published a guide for the media to offer journalists information and resources for accurate coverage of out LGBTQ athletes, “especially as trans and nonbinary athletes courageously took the world stage,” Simon said. It became particularly pertinent when TV commentators from around the world misgendered Team USA skateboarder Alana Smith.
Check out some of the key inspiring takeaways from these Games, as selected by GLAAD and Outsports, as well as the work that still needs to be done in and around the Olympics, the sports world, and various countries around the globe.
Sue Bird and other out athletes carry their country’s flag in the Opening Ceremony
STORY: Before winning her fifth — yes fifth! — Olympic gold medal in basketball, Sue Bird was one of the flag bearers selected to lead Team USA into the Opening Ceremony. At least five other countries selected publicly out LGBTQ athletes as their flag bearers for the Opening Ceremony: Argentina, Cecilia Caranza, sailing; Cyprus, Andri Eleftheriou, shooting Finland, Ari-Pekka Liukkonen, swimming; Ireland, Kellie Harrington, boxing, Ireland; Venezuela, Yulimar Rojas, track and field. The Philippines appointed boxer Nesthy Petecio as the country’s flag bearer during the Closing Ceremony, after Petecio dedicated her silver medal to the LGBTQ community.
WORK TO BE DONE: It’s absolutely inspiring to see out athletes selected to hold their country’s flag. Yet it’s also disheartening that two of these countries — Cyprus and Venezuela — still have not legalized same-sex marriage. Hopefully the visibility of these out Olympians can help build conversation toward that.
Yulimar Rojas wins gold, shatters world record
STORY: Yulimar Rojas had been named one of the flag-bearers for Venezuela, but she missed the Opening Ceremony. She certainly pulled it all together for her competition, winning gold at the track in the triple jump and smashing a 26-year-old world record
WORK TO BE DONE: Rojas’ achievements, visibility and leadership should be celebrated. Media could also focus less on questions of “fairness” in sports when it comes to transgender participation and instead shine a light on the proven inequities in women’s sports year-round, and on the lack of rights for LGBTQ athletes in countries like Venezuela, where marriage equality is not legal.
Raven Saunders wins silver, twerks and protests
STORY: With her big personality, Raven Saunders won over many fans en route to a silver medal in the shot put and twerking right there at the Olympic track to celebrate. “Hulk” (as she calls herself) then defied the Olympic ban on protests to send a message of intersectional inclusion on the medal podium.
WORK TO BE DONE: Saunders gave us her all on the field and off - speaking up for the LGBTQ community, for Black people, for mental health, for older lesbians, for masculine women, all with obvious and hard-fought joy and pride. Her gesture on the medal podium in support of oppressed people was moving, necessary and an example of the kind of expression the IOC should support for medalists who want to use their platforms to draw attention to issues important to them and their communities. Guidelines on protest and expression must be expanded to allow athletes to share more of themselves, especially in uplifting calls for racial and social justice and all who are historically without a voice.
Quinn becomes the first publicly out trans and non-binary athlete to medal
STORY: Quinn made history at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Along with Laurel Hubbard, they were one of the first two out trans athletes to compete at any Olympics. And along with Alana Smith, they also broke the Olympic barrier for non-binary athletes. Quinn’s Olympic story had a fairytale ending, taking home Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer.
WORK TO BE DONE: Quinn and Team Canada’s gold medal run is a milestone for transgender and nonbinary visibility. Fans got to see how Quinn was embraced by their team and able to contribute fully and authentically; Quinn got to share their love of the game and show LGBTQ young people how they can be themselves and belong. The IOC and host committees must upgrade official athlete biography forms to include accurate and consistent gender identity - Quinn and Alana Smith of Team USA Skateboarding are still misgendered.
Laurel Hubbard is the first out trans woman to compete at an Olympics, and she doesn’t win
STORY: Hubbard became the first out trans woman to compete in an Olympic Games, as she represented New Zealand in weightlifting. She weathered brutal attacks from anti-trans people, claiming she had an unfair advantage over other women in the competition. But a funny thing happened: Hubbard didn’t win. In fact, she finished last in her weight category, unable to complete a single lift. The anti-trans-athlete narrative was completely upended.
WORK TO BE DONE: Media should avoid spreading demonstrably false information about transgender athletes and false claims they are dominating or destroying sports, and focus on the facts. The Olympics, NCAA, sports governing bodies and more than a dozen states have had policies welcoming trans participation for years; They long ago created guidelines to include trans people and there has been no evidence of trans people dominating sports. Such discrimination against transgender athletes is corrosive throughout society. It threatens to seep into everyday life and against innocent children who just want to play with their friends. State bans against trans children participating in school sports are harmful to all kids.
Erica Sullivan calls herself the “epitome of an American person” after winning silver
STORY: American swimmer Erica Sullivan made headlines with her medal in the pool and comments about being a reflection of modern American society, while talking powerfully about the American dream. “I feel like I am the epitome of the American person,” she said. “I am multi-cultural, I am queer, I am a lot of minorities in that sense. And that’s what America is.”
WORK TO BE DONE: Erica is outgoing, candid and gay, a woman and an American of Asian descent. She is America. The fact that she felt the need to say this shows the work that needs to be done for all marginalized people to feel accepted and to belong just as they are.
Polish rower Katarzyna Zillmann comes out after winning silver
STORY: Katarzyna Zillman, a rower representing Poland at the Tokyo Olympics, used the chance of her new platform to inspire the LGBTQ community back in Poland. Zillmann was part of the women’s quad sculls team that took silver.
WORK TO BE DONE: More than just the LGBTQ community needs to be calling out Poland’s astonishing escalation against LGBTQ citizens including creating “LGBT Free Zones.” Zillman’s coming out and messages of support should encourage others with platforms, including in politics and media, to speak out against these dangerous moves to codify discrimination. The U.S. should lead the way for LGBTQ acceptance and pass the Equality Act, which ensures comprehensive protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity for every American. Overwhelming majorities of Americans of all faiths and political parties support laws protecting LGBTQ people. The Equality Act secures those values into law. The U.S. Senate must pass the Equality Act and send a powerful message to Poland and other countries that LGBTQ people are valued and worthy of protection, not targeting.
Tom Daley finally gets Olympic gold, highlights being gay in his presser
STORY: In his fourth Olympic Games, and second after coming out publicly as gay, Tom Daley finally won a gold medal, in the men’s synchronized diving category. He made being gay front-and-center, saying after his gold medal win: “I hope that any young LGBT person out there see that no matter how alone you feel right now, that you are not alone and you can achieve anything.” He followed up that gold medal with an individual bronze.
WORK TO BE DONE: Tom Daley achieved his greatest success in his sport after coming out, and he has continued to use his platform to support LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ people in sport. He urged society to look beyond a white male dominated view to include different races, genders, religions and sexual orientations. As an Olympic champion, as well as husband, father, knitter, and outspoken advocate, he proves that masculinity can be both strong and nurturing. Everyone in sports, from athletes to parents to coaches and teachers, needs to make sports safe for all and for all expressions of self.
Team USA diver Jordan Windle credits and thanks his gay dad for his success
STORY: Jordan Windle was adopted from Cambodia at a very early age by his father, Jerry. Since then, the diving phenom has been mentored by the likes of Greg Louganis and competed for the Univ. of Texas. All the while, he has been raised by his gay dad with Jerry’s full support. On the world’s largest sports stage, Jordan made it all the way to the final of the 10-meter platform diving competition and finished ninth.
WORK TO BE DONE: Stories like the Windles’ reinforce that love is love, that LGBTQ people can provide loving and safe homes and be excellent parents. But even in 2021, with record numbers of Americans supporting marriage equality and laws to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether LGBTQ people can be discriminated against when seeking to foster or adopt a child. Jordan is now a student at the University of Texas, in a state that has targeted LGBTQ youth and threatened to remove transgender children from their parents who help them seek gender-affirming care. Love makes a family. All families can be allies and speak up for LGBTQ parents as well as LGBTQ kids.
Alana Smith and their skateboard, and the instant pushback to misgendering
STORY: When they took to the Olympic stage, Team USA skateboarder Alana Smith generated conversation with their skateboard and willingness to be out in front of the world. When NBC misgendered them on its broadcast — while talking about Smith using they/them pronouns — it generated a push for more training of TV broadcasters.
WORK TO BE DONE: Recognizing pronouns and using the correct ones saves lives. This is an area of evolving understanding and it’s up to the media to educate itself and get it right when covering transgender and nonbinary people. The guide GLAAD published with Athlete Ally and Pride House Tokyo for the Olympics and Paralympics has up-to-date terminology and recommendations. When reporters, networks or anyone slips up, it’s best to sincerely apologize and follow best practices moving forward. Journalists have a responsibility to all viewers and readers to cover transgender, nonbinary and all LGBTQ people accurately and respectfully.
Special thanks to GLAAD for contributing to this Tokyo Olympics recap.
Be sure to come back to Outsports for coverage of the upcoming Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games.