British diver Tom Daley, 27, has competed at the elite level as an openly gay man for seven years now. On Monday, he added Olympic gold in the men’s synchronised 10m platform dive to his bronze medals in London and Rio and numerous world championship successes.
So what? He is not the first gay man to compete nor win gold at the Olympics. There is an ever-growing list. But in Daley’s case, it was as much about what he said as his winning dive itself.
“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” he told reporters after the medal ceremony.
“When I was younger I didn’t think I’d ever achieve anything because of who I was … There was something about me that was never going to be as good as what society wanted me to be.
“I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone. You can achieve anything.”
Professional sport is no longer an unconquered frontier for LGBT athletes but there has been just a handful of out-and-proud men competing at the elite level around the world in the past decade.
Even then, the overwhelming majority of those have been on the periphery. Some come out in their final years of competition and others that muster the courage earlier drop off in form and drift into obscurity.
And that’s what makes Daley different. He is at the peak of his powers.
Australia’s most successful Olympian, Ian Thorpe, came out a decade after winning the last of his five gold medals. Like this writer and too many others, he endured a decade of his adulthood tormented, tortured and confused. Even the greatest has conceded he too often stared into the abyss and questioned whether it was worth it.
Diver Matthew Mitcham, who was openly gay when he won gold for Australia at Beijing, did not appear as comfortable talking about his sexuality at the time but has since recounted his personal struggle with mental health and substance abuse. So too swimmer Daniel Kowalski on his depression and bulimia.
Gay rights and community acceptance in Australia have come so far in the past decade it’s sometimes hard to remember what things were like before.
But for those of you reading this over your breakfast, on your phone or at your desk, you’ll probably interact with a colleague, friend, brother, sister, son or daughter today who has not let you nor anyone else into their terrifying little secret. And it still can be the most terrifying and loneliest secret to keep.
Daley knows this all too well despite the fortune of living most of his adult life as an openly gay man. Many of those athletes he competes against cannot.
He and diving partner Matty Lee were flanked on the podium by Chinese and Russian competitors, with their press conference beamed into the living rooms of both nations. Neither country is a shining beacon for LGBT rights.
It’s why in 2018, after winning Commonwealth Games gold in Australia, Daley made a plea for more of the countries competing to decriminalise homosexuality.
“Coming to the Gold Coast and being able to live as an openly gay man is really important in being able to feel comfortable with who you are when standing on that diving board,” he said. “For 37 countries that are here participating, that’s very much not the case.”
Many feared gold would elude Daley, who is at his fourth Games. He has often been encouraged by his coaches and mentors to focus more on his day job and less on his social crusade to ensure he fulfilled his obvious talent.
Thank goodness for thousands of gay men, young and old, closeted or out in the open, that he never listened.
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