Linda Robertson

Diver Matthew Mitcham springboards into debate about gay athletes

Diving with a tender abdominal muscle is about as painful as playing trumpet with a split lip.

With each leap, somersault and twist Australia’s Matthew Mitcham felt the tugs in his belly, even letting out an involuntary midair cry during a dive in the semifinal round. He scratched out of Sunday’s platform final at the AT&T USA Diving Grand Prix at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex.

Mitcham became one of the sensations of the 2008 Beijing Olympics when he prevented Chinese divers from sweeping the gold medals with his surprise victory in the 10-meter tower. On Sunday, he couldn’t upstage China’s Liang Huo and Bo Qiu, who finished one-two. He had to watch from the stands.

Mitcham attributes the abdominal injury, as well as two stress fractures in his lower spine, to excessive diving. Combine that with a heavy schedule of linguistics classes at Sydney University and numerous appearances. Fatigue and injuries followed.

“It’s been a packed year,” he said. “I overdid it and my body broke.”

Mitcham is in demand. He’s a star in an island nation that loves its aquatic heroes. He is celebrated not only for his stunning Olympic victory but also for his candor in coming out as a gay athlete, a rarity in macho sports culture.

Mitcham has been gratified to see several European athletes come out, including British rugby player Gareth Thomas, British cricketer Steven Davies and Swedish soccer player Anton Hysen.

Hysen is receiving support from his teammates, a positive change compared to the plight of Justin Fashanu, the first high-level pro soccer player to reveal he was gay. England’s Fashanu was shunned and berated and committed suicide in 1998.

Unfortunate stigma

In the U.S., being a gay athlete remains a stigma. Diver Greg Louganis, who attended the meet in Fort Lauderdale, is a rarity in American sports, but even he waited until after he retired to come out.

Sexual orientation shouldn’t matter. We should be beyond artificial delineations and whispered questions of “Is he?” or “Is she?” Someday we’ll look back on gay-bashing the way we look back on the Salem Witch Trials and segregated water fountains.

But we’re not there yet – definitely not in the homophobic sports world. Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell insulted San Francisco Giants fans with an offensive anti-gay rant. A recent study of former college linebackers who are gay found they feared that coming out would alienate coaches, teammates and fans and jeopardize their chance at a pro career. Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 last month for directing what NBA commissioner David Stern called a “distasteful term” at a referee.

The “F” word should be as taboo as the “N” word in locker rooms, too, as it is in any workplace. The NBA’s Grant Hill has filmed a “Think Before You Speak” public service announcement with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that will air during the NBA Finals. It’s time for other leagues to do the same.

Mitcham would love to see the day when being a gay athlete isn’t a story, but knows that men’s sports remains one of the last bastions of archaic notions of masculinity.

“Fortunately, Australia is a very open society,” he said. “A lot of the prejudice comes from environmental and religious factors. If God created us all in his image why would he create someone he would hate?”

Mitcham, 23, wants to talk about his identity so that others might be as comfortable in their skin as he is in his. He’s proud to be a role model, because his story is an encouraging one.

Positive response

He came out before the 2008 Olympics when he told the Sydney Morning Herald that he lived with his partner, Lachlan Fletcher. He was the only openly gay male athlete at the Beijing Games, where 11,000 athletes competed.

And the response was?

“Absolutely positive,” Mitcham said. “It’s part of my own ethical and moral beliefs to be an honest person. I accepted who I was. When you’re hiding something people sense it as a weakness.”

Mitcham applied for and received a travel grant from the Johnson & Johnson Athlete Family Support Program to have Lachlan attend the Olympics.

“I wasn’t going to treat my partner like he didn’t exist,” Mitcham said. “I decided I wanted Australians to know who they were supporting. I’m glad I did.”

At the Olympics, Mitcham went into the final dive of the final event trailing China’s Zhou Luxin by 34 points.

“China had won seven golds and they were celebrating their eighth already,” he said. “I was thinking silver for myself.”

But on his final dive, Mitcham earned four perfect 10s and scored a record 112.10 points. He beat Zhou by 4.8 points.

NBC cut away from the coverage when a jubilant Mitcham ran into the stands and kissed his mother and Fletcher. NBC was criticized for not showing Mitcham’s embraces when the network wasn’t hesitant to show those of heterosexual athletes. NBC said it was not an intentional slight but later said, “We regret that we missed the opportunity to tell Matthew Mitcham’s story.”

Mitcham was raised by his young single mum, Vivienne. He met his father for the first time last year and the two have developed a good relationship.

Being a diver in Australia is not nearly as lucrative as being a swimmer. Prior to the Olympics, Mitcham and Fletcher shared a studio apartment and ate “a lot of noodles, toast and baked beans.” Mitcham worked in an office job for a cruise line.

Going for gold

Since the Olympics, Mitcham hasn’t gotten rich; corporations aren’t eager to align themselves with gays. But, in a sign of progress, he has signed endorsement deals with a telecommunications company, a nutrition bar company and Funky Trunks, a swimwear company. He was chief of parade for the Sydney Mardi Gras, a gay pride event.

He’s planning to go for gold at the 2012 London Olympics. By then, we can only hope for evolution in the secretive sports world. By then, perhaps more athletes will have followed Mitcham’s courageous example.