Gay diver Matthew Mitcham is inspiration for others

When Australian diver Matthew Mitcham competes in the semi-final of the men's 10m platform event at the Beijing Olympics on Saturday, he will not only have the support of a sports- mad country behind him, he will also have the support of a large part of the gay community.

20-year-old Mitcham, who advanced to the semi-finals with the second-highest points total, is one of 11 athletes competing at the Olympics who has publicly stated that he is gay.

Co-founder of the gay sports website outsports.com, Jim Buzinski, who names the 11 athletes in an article published on the website, said that the Australian is be an inspiration for many gays.

"We do not expect that his participation at the Olympics, even if he does well, will cause a tidal wave of other gay athletes outing themselves.

"Each athlete has his or her own set of unique circumstances, be they family, team, or sports. It might be easier for some to come out and more difficult for others.

"We know of many other gay athletes, who have not come out and openly said that they are gay. Some of them have said so to team- mates or friends, but their sexual orientation is not yet out in the public domain.

"And we respect their right to privacy."

Surprisingly, the list of 11 athletes consist of just one man: Matthew Mitcham (Australia, diving), and one bi-sexual: Vicky Galindo (US, softball).

The other nine athletes are all women: Judith Arndt (Germany, cycling), Imke Duplitzer (Germany, fencing), Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg (Norway, handball and a lesbian couple), Natasha Kai (US, soccer), Lauren Lappin (US, softball), Victoria "Vickan" Svensson (Sweden, soccer), Rennae Stubbs (Australia, tennis) and Linda Bresonik (Germany, soccer).

Hammerseng and Nyberg will be playing in the gold medal match in handball with Norway, while Kai picked up gold as the US defeated Brazil 1-0 in the women's football final. Bresonik won a bronze with her team, while Galindo and Lappin won silver with the US softball team.

Buzinski believes that one of the reasons why there are so many women who have openly stated that they are lesbians is because culture seems to be more tolerant of gay female athletes.

"Society thinks that many women who play certain types of sport are lesbians anyway. It is like a default setting.

"Woman are also in a supportive environment. It is more accepted there and they make no big thing of it.

"Or maybe, they are just braver," he says.

In the absence of more brave gay men, it is left for Mitcham to carry the torch for gay male Olympians in Beijing.

If he wins a medal, he will, of course, not be the first gay Olympian to win a medal.

There have been several others, like double gold medallist Camilla Andersen (Denmark, handball), Gigi Fernandez, who won two gold medals for the US in tennis, American cyclist Robert Dover who won four bronze medals and Sheryl Swoopes, who won three gold medals in women's basketball.

Possibly the most famous gay Olympian was diver Greg Louganis, who won four gold medals and a silver, but only came out once he had retired from the sport. He later also announced that he was HIV positive.

But even then, controversy followed him as he was criticised for a decision to continue competing after banging his head during a dive at the 1988 Olympics and bleeding into the pool. He said that he had been advised by a doctor that there was no danger to any other divers as a result of his blood. He therefore decided to continue in the competition and picked up another gold.

Mitcham though, does not want to be compared with Louganis. "We're both gay divers. But that's about the only similarity - two things we share out of thousands of millions of qualities and character traits," he told Australian media before the start of the Olympics.

"I just want to be known as the Australian diver who did really well at the Olympics. It's everybody else who thinks it's special when homosexuality and elite sport go together," he said, according to dpa.

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