Australian Swimmer and Olympic champion Ian Thorpe has come out in a televised interview on Australian television. This revelation has not been without controversy, particularly from the gay community where many feel like it is too little, too late. The iconic swimmer acknowledged what many people had suspected and pestered him about for years by openly saying he was a gay man. This was partially a recognition of his own journey and partly an acknowledgement of the pressure that the sporting world puts on its athletes. After publicly battling alcohol abuse and depression, Thorpe’s news has also put a spotlight on the health effects of living in the closet. For the LGBT community, however, a decade and more of denials feels like betrayal, as does the $400,000 deal Thorpe made regarding the interview and coverage of the British Commonwealth Games coming up later this month. Much of the discussion revolves around one central question: does a world-renowned athlete like Ian Thorpe have a greater responsibility to himself or to others when it comes to acknowledging his sexuality?
Speculation about Thorpe’s sexuality started when he was only 15 and had made a name for himself on the international stage. He was one of the youngest athletes at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney as well as its most successful athlete with a grand total of five medals, three of them gold. Today, he has lived more than half his life as a public figure where scrutiny of his actions is intense and global. At 31, he finally feels “comfortable saying I’m a gay man.” It was a long time in coming.
The journey towards accepting and acknowledging one’s sexuality is often a long and arduous experience for many people. Thorpe is not unusual in that respect, but he is unusual in just what was at stake. Many gay teens experience rejection from their families when they come out, an estimated 26 percent of gay males being thrown out of their homes. Between 25 and 50 percent of all homeless youth are there because of their sexual orientation. For the average gay kid, a home and family are a possible price to pay for coming out. For Ian Thorpe in his teens, the price was much higher. It was not just his family he faced losing, but the love of a nation and a career in a sport he was passionate about. It may have looked as though the hate of millions, including those closest to him, was too high a cost, assuming he knew he was gay at that age. Whether he knew he was gay or did not, Ian Thorpe’s denials and silence on the issue in those early days surely seems excusable.
There would be opportunities later in the famed “Thorpedoe’s” career to come out and breach the topic, but he famously did not. Instead, there were vehement denials in interviews, statements, and even his 2012 autobiography. Many will point out that he was no longer a child when he made these decisions to keep quiet about his sexuality. Perhaps he should have been braver and it does seem to have been an option he considered. But once again, he had a lot to lose and he knew that if he did come out, it was highly likely that he would.
For any athlete, part of the income is the sponsorship deals they make with big brands like Nike or Adidas. Thorpe himself was one of the biggest athletes in the world and had his own sponsorship deals. The story goes, however, that he was cautioned from going out by the example of Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury. The Canadian gold medalist had won the 100 meter backstroke in 1992, breaking the world record in the process. He came out as gay because of rumors which apparently cost six-figure contract as a speaker. After learning of this story and the possible financial consequences involved, Thorpe postponed his own coming out.
There does seem to exist a prejudice against gay athletes in sports, which is why it is big news when one of them comes out. In America, the recent example of Michael Sam, his coming out, and the backlash he received for a celebratory kiss from his boyfriend on national television are all examples of how this prejudice still exists today. By all accounts, the atmosphere has gotten better for LGBT people in sports and there are many openly gay, high-profile athletes. Ian Thorpe is the latest and his coming out is indicative of the change that has occurred. It is also a step in the right direction towards a more inclusive athletic community.
Should it have happened sooner? The question is one that many Australian commentators are asking, particularly those who have braved coming out in their own professions. Comedian and commentator Tom Ballard, an Aussie who as a teenager idolized Ian Thorpe, has written a passionate article about who exactly needed the swimmer to come out sooner. He writes that it was his 15-year-old self who needed it, mirroring a plight that perhaps many young gay Aussies felt at the time. While he is disappointed that this did not happen earlier, he is still temperate in his criticism noting that he does not believe LGBT people have a “responsibility” to come out, but it is an opportunity to make a big, positive change. Others have written that Thorpe missed that opportunity and was not brave when many might have needed him to be.
The response to the interview when Ian Thorpe came out has been both supportive and critical. Even the most cynical have acknowledged that the experience of one’s sexuality is uniquely personal. The impact of being in the closet has been clear to see for many. His stint in rehab and his battles with depression make more sense now that he has come out and there is much hope that his health will continue to improve now that he is fully open about who he is. Members of the LGBT community generally experience high levels of depression and suicidal thoughts which can be directly related to their sexual orientation. Today, gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to actually attempt suicide than their peers. Tom Ballard at 15 may not have had the role-model he needed then, but perhaps some 15-year-old kid experiencing these effects today will be able to look at Ian Thorpe and see the champion they need.
Australian sport has made strides recently, but homophobia still exists. On Saturday night in, an Australian Football League commentator used a gay slur during the pre-game show on national television. He apologised during the halftime show and will receive counselling, but some are concerned about the fact that he felt comfortable using the slur on air in the frist place. It seems indicative of a culture that still has an anti-gay bias, the kind of bias that makes Thorpe’s coming out so important. Progress is taken a step at a time, both in one’s personal life and in the wider culture. For Ian Thorpe, his journey has led him to come out in a nationally televised interview. For culture, Thorpe’s coming out is also a step for what many are hopeful will be a more open and accepting world.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury