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LGBTI Equality: The Lost Legacy of the London Games?

Posted: 07/09/2012 00:00

The Australian diver Matthew Mitcham promised his fans on Twitter that, if he won gold in the London Olympics, he would skinny dive in the Aquatic Centre.

No medals for Mitcham this time round, but had he taken his nude plunge he would have been drawing on the traditions of the ancient games, where athletes stripped naked, slicked their bodies with olive oil and flexed their perfectly sculpted muscles for the pleasure of 40,000 eager male fans (women had their own competition).

As it happens, Mitcham is one of 25 openly gay or lesbian competitors at London 2012. His tease tickled his largely gay fan club, but in the ancient games his Greek god's body would have been appreciated by everyone.

As the most eagerly anticipated Paralympics ever draws to a close, in terms of inclusiveness it's worth considering to what extent the modern Olympics and Paralympics compare with the ancient tradition. Well, I would hope: in 2012 for the first time women were represented in every team, including Saudi Arabia, and the growing importance and popularity of the Paralympics has raised the profile of disabled athletes in recent years. Neither group was celebrated much on the running track of Ancient Olympia. But in one respect the Ancient Greeks win hands down.

The modern Olympic family is not comfortable with homosexuality. It remains if not taboo, largely invisible.

That said, I should take note of the allusive world of sexuality hinted at by some of London's events: Danny Boyle's opening ceremony resurrected an (albeit brief) lesbian kiss from the long-dead Brookside; Pride House, an LGBTI initiative, organised exhibitions and events close to the Olympic venues; gay icon George Michael led the Top-of-the-Pops line up at the closing ceremony; there's even a bid to host the 2018 Gay Games in the Olympic Park.

The Paralympics opening ceremony seemed to re-enforce the message of inclusiveness, ending with a rip-roaring rendition of that very gay anthem 'I am what I am' by Beverley Knight. But let's not get over excited. Those 25 out gay Olympians and Paralympians begin to look less than included when you consider the thousands who have taken part so far. What is it about modern sport that closes the door on sexual identity?

Of the 25 the vast majority are women. Male Olympians, paragons of muscular perfection, those sinewed, bloodied, sweat-washed real men aren't gay, after all: you can't be a sissy and swing the discus, so to speak. But then there's nothing sissy about Mitcham, who regularly launches himself from a ten-metre diving board, nor Carl Hester and fellow equestrians Edward Gal and Paralympian Lee Pearson. These are all brave, beautiful people.

So too are the no doubt hundreds of men and women who feel unable to identify publicly as LGBTI, who live in countries where homophobia is a plague on freedom, who fear imprisonment, beatings, torture, even death if their sexuality is known, who can expect loss of family, friends, sponsorship - not one of the 25 has a major company or brand backing them - if they pull away the veil of invisibility demanded by sport, or who listen to those siren voices on the blogosphere telling them it's all about taking part, their sexuality is irrelevant.

The current image of sport encourages this persecutory environment. After all, it's on the school playing fields that homophobic bullying occurs, not in the maths class. International sporting organisations have a duty to address this, and as London hosts the world's largest sporting festival LOCOG should have made it a priority to put sexuality on the IOC's agenda.

A compelling reason for LGBTI athletes not to come out is the fear of violence or arrest in competitions in cities less embracing of diversity and difference than London. As part of its legacy for the Games, London should have initiated discussion and debate with the IOC about how best to protect LGBTI athletes. Gay and lesbian competitors should have been expressly and publicly welcomed; if they had been their sexual orientation would have been seen to be truly irrelevant.

Back in the days of the Ancient Olympics sexuality was neither here nor there. It was Homer who first sang the praises of athletic contest, in the games held by Achilles for his lover Patroclus, told of towards the end of The Iliad. Later such games would become a symbol of peaceful competition between otherwise warring states and by then it was taken for granted that the youthful demigods pounding the track, hurling the discus and back-flipping their wrestling opponents had lovers looking on in the crowd.

Why else did an anonymous poet of the second century BCE pray that Zeus wouldn't snatch an Olympic champion up to heaven before he had a chance, or an over-zealous admirer leap into the boxing ring to smear his lips on the winner's bloodied face? Pindar, the greatest of the Olympian poets, celebrated those lovers as much as the victors: 'Any man who catches the glance / of bright-eyed Theoxenos / and is not tempest-tossed on a sea of desire / has a heart made cold by money or the slavish love of women.' Even Socrates couldn't resist admiring a hot athlete's six-pack.

We can chuckle at Ancient Greek homoerotica, but there is also something much more serious at stake. A stated purpose of the modern Olympics is to promote inclusiveness, not just of nations large and small, but also of everyone within the human family. Yet those who identify as LGBTI remain excluded.

A few weeks ago London's Pride House hosted a film by Jeff Sheng of young out gay athletes called Fearless, hoping to "move the goal posts just one yard" in terms of the visibility of LGBTI people in sport. London 2012 should have offered an opportunity for doing this. If you'd strolled around Ancient Olympia, you might have stopped to admire the statues of past champions as well as the 40-foot colossus of Olympian Zeus, on the finger of which the sculptor Phidias had celebrated his love for another athlete by carving 'Pantarces is beautiful".

Imagine Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit with "Mitcham is a god" wrought on it! Sadly the closest we've come to such a declaration in the Olympic Park was the applause that greeted an Olympic torch bearer on London's streets when he kissed his boyfriend.

Mayor Boris Johnson is something of a Classicist himself and should know that this ancient legacy is worth noting if London 2012 is to be anything other than a flying commercial success, if it is to be a significant signpost.

The next Olympic event, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will prove a tough test for the IOC's alleged inclusive spirit. Pride House has already been told by a Russian court they're not welcome.

Out LGBT athletes from Europe and America should bear in mind the dangers they will face competing abroad. Even Brazil, where homosexuality is not criminalised, has one of the worst records for homophobic violence, including murder, in the world.

Protests about human rights abuses have been made in the past, but no international sporting body has ever stood up for LGBTI rights. Socrates did, so did Pindar for his many bright-eyed champions, and Phidias for his love of beauty; Achilles did for his Patroclus, all those sweat-shining beautiful lads, grinning beneath laurels, they did too.

London 2012's token brave new world stab at inclusiveness is not enough. If they're to become visible, LGBTI athletes must be celebrated openly at the heart of the Games, along with gender and disability equality; along with everyone. The final closing ceremony still offers hope of this.

 

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