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There are more LGBTQ Olympic athletes than ever, and they want everyone to know it

·5-min read

According to an independent count, there are at least three times more publicly out LGBTQ athletes in Tokyo than at the Olympic Games. Many are seizing on the opportunity to bring a message of equality to a global audience.

In London, they were just 23. In Rio, 56.

In Tokyo, there are at least 181 publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming athletes, according to the website Outsports, which specialises in LGBTQ sports news. That means the number of out LGBTQ Olympians has more than tripled in just five years.

"The number of publicly out LGBTQ athletes in Tokyo is also greater than the number of publicly out athletes who have participated in all of the previous Olympic Games — Summer and Winter — combined,” the site notes. “The massive increase in the number of out athletes reflects the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people in sports and society.”

Canadian swimmer Markus Thormeyer competed in Rio, but it wasn’t until four years later, in 2020, that he came out as gay.

“Competing at the Olympics as an openly gay athlete is pretty amazing,” Thormeyer told Outsports.

‘I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion’

British diver Tom Daley, 27, came out as gay in 2013. In Tokyo, after winning gold alongside diving partner Matty Lee in the synchronised 10m dive, he shared a message of hope.

“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” Daley told reporters. “When I was younger I didn’t think I’d ever achieve anything because of who I was. To be an Olympic champion now just shows that you can achieve anything.”

US athlete Raven Saunders, 25, made a more visual display of pride and protest after taking silver in the shot put on Sunday. Standing on the podium, she lifted her arms above her head to form an “X” with her wrists. Asked what that meant, she said, “It’s the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”

Saunders, who came out to her mother in third grade and has described herself as a “Flaming Gay” on social media, told reporters she above all wanted to be herself and “not apologise”.

Her success in Tokyo comes after difficult years, when she struggled with depression and contemplated suicide. Saunders’ openness around her mental health, like that of fellow Black athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, has contributed to a larger reckoning around the issue.

Her mission today, she told AP, is “to show younger people that no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you and you can accept it. People tried to tell me not to do tattoos and piercings and all that. But look at me now, and I’m poppin’.”

Some Olympic athletes have used the platform to come out publicly for the first time. Among them is Polish rower Katarzyna Zillmann, whose team claimed silver in the quadruple sculls. Speaking to reporters after the event, Zillmann thanked her girlfriend, adding, “I know that in this way I will help others”. Her remarks bear particular resonance amid a major backlash against LGBTQ rights in Poland.

Zillmann’s teammate Aleksandra Jarmolińska, a skeet shooter, also publicly came out not long before the Tokyo Games, announcing that she would be marrying her finance upon her return. During the opening ceremony, she wore a mask bearing the rainbow stripes of the LGBTQ pride flag.

For street skateboarder Alana Smith, participating in the Olympics was at least as much about making a statement as winning a medal.

“My goal coming into this was to be happy and be a visual representation for humans like me,” Smith, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them, wrote on Instagram. “For the first time in my entire life, I’m proud of the person I’ve worked to become. I chose my happiness over medaling.”

Most recently, on Tuesday, the first-ever transgender Olympian made her debut: weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand, who thanked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for allowing her to participate amid a storm of controversy after she walked away from a disappointing performance in the +87kg category.

New rules on athletes’ political speech

In a year marked by a resurgence of political engagement among athletes, LGBTQ Olympians aren’t the only ones who have used their platforms to speak out about the causes they hold dear. Such outspokenness has been made somewhat easier by reforms to Olympic rules — specifically, part 50.2 of the Games’ Charter, which reads, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

On July 2, the IOC somewhat loosened this rule. While athletes are still banned from expressing political opinions during competition and on the podium, as well as during the opening and closing ceremonies, they may now speak more freely with reporters, on social media and in team meetings before and after they compete.

This freedom comes with many caveats, however. Among them, athletes’ expressions cannot be “disruptive” or “targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organisations and/or their dignity”. Some would have liked to see the reforms go further.

“How is it possible to denounce racism and other forms of systemic discrimination without targeting a particular structure or state?” wrote Estelle E. Brun, a research fellow in the geopolitics of sport at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, in an opinion piece published by French newspaper Le Monde. “Racism, politics and economic systems cannot be separated.”

This article was translated and adapted from the original in French.

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