It seems the world media have been abuzz since champion swimmer Ian Thorpe told the world that he is gay. As Fairfax reported, reactions to his news have ranged from the shock of his family to the indifference of others, and we couldn’t help but notice that it would seem sharing one’s sexuality with the world can be risky business for a professional sportsperson. During an interview with Sir Michael Parkinson that aired on Channel Ten last month, Thorpe revealed that attitudes in the playground of his all boys’ high school were homophobic, and being ‘gay’ was a term thrown around as an accusation that was often followed with an invitation for a fight. It was this introduction to society’s attitude towards homosexuality that Thorpe claims lead him to answer ‘no’ to the media when first asked at age 15, about his sexual orientation. That a child should be asked an intrusive, highly personal question seems unfair, however the press attention on his struggle with depression and the scrutiny around his sexuality over the past decade has been akin to the focus on his phenomenal swimming achievements.
As the youngest male swimmer to win a world championship, Thorpe’s identity as a whole became internationally recognisable at age 15, confirmed as his father stated “I have lost my son to the world”. Thorpe suggests that public homophobic taunts of being called a ‘faggot’ and a ‘poof’ contributed to him maintaining that he was heterosexual, so as to appear to be the “right athlete by other people’s standards” and to make his family, peers and nation proud. With the many sponsorship deals that have spanned throughout his career, it is not out of the question to consider whether Thorpe was aware of the reputational risk and brand damage should he have come out earlier.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, rugby player Jay Claydon believes that he was asked to leave two New Zealand rugby clubs in 2007 solely because his homosexuality was discovered. From this experience and from homophobic insults regularly used in the Australian clubs he played for, he had learned to keep his gender identity quiet. Claydon now plays for the Sydney Convicts, a rugby club formed in 2004 that openly welcomes gay players and prides itself on a “prejudice free environment”.
A sportsperson maintaining a lie to conceal their sexual identity would also appear to have its costs to the individual, with Thorpe recalling a sense of shame around his lack of integrity when claiming that he was heterosexual in his 2012 autobiography ‘This is Me’.
It seems sad that mainstream clubs and sporting communities have yet to commit to eradicating homophobia, and that a sportsperson’s sexuality may have implications and risks for their careers. The concept of what it means to be a sportsman in Australia needs to be widened to include all people that represent our proudly diverse nation.