Gay Olympians: Few are out and proud

It’s one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

You can count its members on the fingers of two hands.

Openly gay Olympians.

Out of the thousands of Olympians competing in the Vancouver Games, only six have come out of the sports closet at the Winter Olympics.

Six.

The odds are astronomical that many more of the Olympians are gay but hiding their sexuality. Most do not have the courage to come out because of the threat of harassment, fear of abandonment by coaches and teammates, worry over losing sponsors, and a host of other concerns.

The Vancouver Games is the first Olympics to have PRIDE House, a safe haven where gay athletes can mingle with their family, friends and fans. But so far, the LGBT community has only a few gay heroes to cheer for at the Winter Olympics.

All six are lesbians:

_ Renate Groenewold, a speed skater from the Netherlands.
_ Sanne van Kerkhof, a speed skater from the Netherlands.
_ Ireen Wust, a speed skater from the Netherlands, and van Kerkhof’s girlfriend.
_ Vibeke Skofterud, a cross-country skier from Norway.
_ Sarah Vaillancourt, a hockey player from Canada.
_ Erika Holst, a hockey player from Sweden.

Most gay athletes will remain in the closet -- or be very, very coy.

Like American skater Johnny Weir, who wears eyeliner, makeup, and feathers and pink ribbons on his skating costume.

Weir even has a cheeky quote to address those raised eyebrows: “There are some things I keep sacred. My middle name. Who I sleep with. And what kind of hand moisturizer I use.”

That sounds like something a heterosexual male athlete would say, right?

Outsports, which tracks athletes who are out, said only 10 Olympians declared themselves openly gay, out of the 10,708 athletes who competed in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Of those 10, only one was male, gold-medal-winning diver Matthew Mitcham of Australia.

Historically, Olympians don’t come out of the closet until their athletic careers are over. One such athlete was Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who acknowledged that he was gay six years after winning a gold medal in the backstroke in 1992 Barcelona Games.

In a 1994 interview with the Associated Press, Tewksbury said it was painful to remain silent as fellow swimmers used the “f-g” slur to insult other competitors. But he also anguished about not having the courage to come out.

“I got so tired of lying, of living a double life, I felt like I was going to die,” Tewksbury said in the interview. “I was afraid of being beaten up, afraid my coach would stop coaching me, afraid my teammates would reject me.”

Although the quest for equal rights marches on, it’s clear that the Olympics remains one of the last institutions to embrace gay and lesbian athletes.

The club of gay Olympians remains way too exclusive.

Ken Williams can be reached at (877) 727-5446 x713 or ken@sdgln.com

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