Belfast Telegraph

How sport’s greatest hurdle is still proving too high

By Philip Hensher

Back at the dawn of time, I was occasionally required to go outside the nice school buildings and practise some sport. It was not a high point of my life.

Whether or not I had any inclination for exercise or physical competition, it had been decided in 1970s Sheffield that people like me were not going to be serious competitors.

On the football field, it was accepted that the three or four people like us would gather near the goal, be labelled “defenders”, and quietly ignored.

Sometimes the sportsmaster or the more committed would call us the ‘mothers' union’ or ‘backline bummers’.

In any case, it was clear to us 14- and 15-year-old rejects that, if you were growing up to be gay, as we all did, then sport and exercise were not for us.

I had later patches of keen cycling, and the occasional venturing in the direction of the gym. But it was too late. I had been taught that gay people were not welcome in sport.

But that was a long time ago. Things have changed in every other section of society — the military, even. There is very little reason for anyone to keep their sexuality secret, and there are even laws to protect people from discrimination.

What about sport. though?

When Carl Hester, the dressage rider, won a gold medal last week, he may have been the first openly gay athlete to win a medal at the summer Olympics. There were some 14,000 athletes appearing at the London Olympics and Paralympics. Of those, 23 were openly gay, of whom four are male.

You may say that it is none of anyone else's business, and in individual cases that is the case. But when an entire class of people feels unanimously obliged to conceal something so ordinary, there is something wrong with the culture.

As somebody who has been more or less openly gay since the early 1980s, I know how difficult these things can be.

But sportsmen and women become important and admirable not just by running fast, but by standing up for social principles.

We remember Jesse Owens, for example, where all his contemporaries have been forgotten. The Olympics has been rightly proud of setting an example, and offering an opportunity to sportswomen in Saudi Arabia. When is it going to start setting an example of openness and tolerance to gay people across the world?

The first major sportsperson who comes out at the peak of his or her career is going to be a hero, not just to their contemporaries, but to history.

The rest of them already look like cowards, at work in an industry confident of its shame.

Belfast Telegraph

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