The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio feature a record number of out lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes, and that’s no accident.
Athletes who came out when the world was a little less friendly helped lay the ground work for an increasingly open Olympic Games. But that’s often easier to do outside of the glare of the international spotlight.
That was the case for former Olympic athlete and Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe, who came out as gay in 2014 in an interview with Australian media.
While talking to a Mardi Gras panel on LGBTQ people in sports earlier this year, he said he might have come out sooner if his sexuality hadn’t been the subject of public scrutiny from such a young age. He was just 16 the first time the question came up.
“If I had a little bit more time when I was younger, I would have come out. I would have been comfortable with that,” Thorpe said, acknowledging the pressure he felt at the time. “In some ways, there is an expectation that you will be the voice of this group, which none of us can do. It’s made up of many voices, and I’m very new to this. I don’t have the experience.”
As is often the case, rumors preceded Thorpe’s announcement, which he vehemently denied at the time, saying: ““For the record, I am not gay and all my sexual experiences have been straight. I’m attracted to women, I love children and aspire to have a family one day.”
But Thorpe’s openness has not only made it easier for today’s Olympic athletes to come out, he’s also credited with inspiring superstar Michael Phelps to become the swimmer he is today. When a young Phelps came onto the scene, he knew he’d have to beat Thorpe — whose career netted him nine Olympic medals as well as 11 World Championship titles — to get to the top.
“There was a lot I could learn from Ian Thorpe, the least of which had to do with swimming,” Phelps wrote. “I have always looked up to Michael Jordan, the way he changed his sport, just the way I want to help change swimming. Ian, in Australia, was like Michael Jordan. The man.”
Thorpe was in the commentator’s box this past week as Phelps began his effort to add to an already record-blasting number of Olympic gold medals. But it’s his comments about young LGBTQ athletes that may have the greatest impact.
“Sport should be a place where kids can be themselves,” Thorpe said earlier this year. “It’s 2016 and about time to end it.”