Australian sporting hero announces he is gay
Ian Thorpe, a record-breaking Australian swimmer, has revealed on television that he is gay. Will his announcement help challenge the ingrained homophobia that haunts the sporting world?
Making headlines comes as second nature to the Australian swimming champion, Ian Thorpe. Over the course of his spectacular career, he has broken 22 world records, won five Olympic gold medals, 10 Commonwealth Games titles and 13 World titles. In Australia, where sport is the king of culture, Thorpe, affectionately known as the ‘Thorpedo’ for his prowess in the pool, is nothing less than a national hero.
This week he made the headlines once again, although this time for a different reason. In an interview with the British journalist Michael Parkinson, aired on Australian television on Sunday night, Thorpe revealed that he is gay. ‘I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man and I don’t want young people to feel the same way I did,’ he said. ‘You can grow up and be comfortable and you can be gay.’
In the past, Thorpe has always emphatically denied the rumours about his sexuality, which have dogged him ever since his career began. Constant speculation in the media caused the young sporting star ‘tremendous pain’ and he has had to contend with homophobic taunts all his life.
While an outpouring of praise has accompanied Thorpe’s announcement, many agree that homophobia is still prevalent in Australian sport. Just this weekend, a sports commentator described a football player as a ‘big poofter’ on live television.
And Thorpe himself was unsure how his fans would react to his news; ‘I didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay,’ he admitted during the interview.
Thorpe remains one of only a handful of high-profile sports stars to have declared their homosexuality. Jason Collins, the American basketballer, went public last year, as did Tom Daley, the British Olympic diving medallist.
But critics say that there is still a long way to go until homosexuality is accepted in sport. Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, describes football in particular as ‘institutionally homophobic’ and laments the fact that no openly gay footballers took part in this year’s World Cup.
Pride and prejudice
Some campaigners have greeted Thorpe’s news with a tinge of disappointment – disappointment that we still live in an age where a celebrity’s homosexuality is news. It is tragic that Thorpe has suffered in silence for so long and some are frustrated that he did not come out earlier. Homophobia is still a major problem that sport must urgently address.
But others have congratulated Thorpe’s decision to come out at a time of his choosing. His decision will inspire thousands of young Australians who are struggling with their own sexuality, and reinforce the message that it is possible to live an open, successful and fulfilling life, regardless of sexual orientation.
- Does knowing about someone’s personal life affect your respect for them?
- Do you think gay people in the public eye have a responsibility to come out? Or is it a personal and private matter?
- In groups, discuss why some people make homophobic comments. Design a poster campaign to raise awareness about the fact that even casual homophobia is not acceptable. What slogan will you use?
- Choose a gay figure whose accomplishments in any field have inspired you. Make a presentation to the class outlining their achievements.
Some People Say...
“Thorpe’s sexuality is no one’s business but his own.’Michael Parkinson”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Ian Thorpe is gay – so what?
- Lots of people would say that is exactly the right response to Thorpe’s announcement, and many long for the day when no one bats an eyelid if a celebrity declares that they are gay. But the reason he has made the headlines is because so few sports celebrities feel able to talk openly about their sexuality, and many gay people, whether famous or not, still face discrimination all over the world.
- What rights do gay people have in Australia?
- Australian laws protecting people against discrimination based on sexual orientation only came into effect last year, although laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability and age were enacted far sooner.
- At 16, Thorpe won the 400m freestyle at the 1998 World Championships to become the youngest ever individual male world champion.
- Tremendous pain
- Thorpe has also struggled with depression and alcohol dependency, and some have attributed this to the fact that he felt the need to conceal his sexuality. Others say this is a dangerous conflation, and argue his mental health issues could be entirely unrelated.
- An offensive Australian slang term for a homosexual, first used in the 60s. There have been calls for the commentator, Brian Taylor, to be sacked. His TV channel has announced he will keep his job but undergo ‘education and counselling’.
- Jason Collins
- Collins was the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues. In April 2014, Collins featured on the cover of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’.
- Tom Daley
- ‘Tom Daley just made it 100 times easier for confused young gay men to lead open, happier lives,’ commented Piers Morgan, after Daley told fans in a homemade video that he was in a relationship with a man.