Every generation or so an athlete comes along whose impact on society stretches far beyond the court, the field, the pool or the track. Maybe they take a stand on war (e.g., Muhammad Ali), or maybe they take a stand on sexism (e.g., Billie Jean King). These trailblazers willingly take on not just the weight of fan expectations, but of entire communities looking for a spark of hope. What makes them so special isn’t just their willingness to carry that weight, but rather their ability to succeed despite the extra baggage.
No one fits this description better than Jesse Owens. At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Adolf Hitler had hoped to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race with a dominant performance in track and field by his white athletes. Instead, it was Owens who dominated. He won four gold medals and set Olympic records as Hitler and his rising Nazi party watched helplessly from the stands — flipping the script completely and showing the world that African Americans were every bit the equals of Hitler’s so-called master race.
More than 70 years later at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a 20-year-old gay Australian diver named Matthew Mitcham found the courage to stand up to an anti-gay Communist regime and shock the world with a movement-defining performance. He will forever be the “gay Jesse Owens,” even if almost no one outside of the LGBTI community realizes it.
When China hosted the Olympics eight years ago, LGBTI people under the country’s oppressive Communist government were, just as they are today, third-class citizens. LGBTI rights, like most human rights in China, are years behind the Western world. While homosexuality isn’t criminalized, LGBTI people have no protections from discrimination. There’s no recognition of same-sex partnerships and no legal access to family-building services like surrogacy for gay couples. Gay-themed films are not permitted to be shown in theaters or on TV.
Of course, intolerance and human-rights violations weren’t what the Chinese government wanted to project at the Beijing Games. Instead, it hoped to demonstrate the power of communism through sports — especially the sports in which the Chinese were particularly dominant, like diving. The goal was for China to take all eight gold medals across all of the men’s and women’s diving events. Only a handful of divers had even a remote shot at preventing a Chinese gold medal sweep.
One of them was Mitcham. A former trampolinist, Mitcham had been diving for only a few years but had quickly risen to national prominence, winning Australian junior national titles in the 1-meter, 3-meter and 10-meter in 2004. He’d struggled, though, outside of the pool — with addiction, with depression and with his sexuality. So much so that he quit diving about two years before Beijing. When he eventually decided he would come back for the 2008 Games, he vowed he would no longer keep his sexuality a secret (first among his teammates and coaches, then among everyone else).
“Previously, I’d experienced homophobia when I wasn’t being forthright with my identity; when I wasn’t comfortable with it,” Mitcham later told Pink News. “People, kids especially, see that as a weakness and target it. When I was actually able to own it, I took all the fun away for the bullies. I’d found it hard to be comfortable with my sexuality at my original Brisbane team because I started with them at such a young age. Coming out to them would also have meant admitting to basically having lied to them as well. When I agreed to train [for the Beijing Games] though, my new coach made absolutely sure that I felt accepted and welcomed for who I was.”
He came out publicly a few months before the Beijing Games began. “If people were going to support me at the Olympics I wanted them to support me for who I was,” he said in the same PinkNews interview. “In the back of my mind I was also thinking how awkward it would be to come out after the Games if I did well.”
Mitcham was one of only 10 LGBTI athletes in Beijing — and the only openly gay man. For some additional context, at the time, Michael Sam was in high school; Jason Collins was dating women; and former Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, who had come out years after his final Olympic competition, had long since retired.
To be sure, there had been openly gay athletes at the Olympics before. At the 2004 Games, French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo captured a silver medal just months after coming out publicly. And American equestrian Robert Dover won bronze medals in team dressage at the 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics, publicly out the entire time. But they were about it; in fact, the number of out athletes in the Olympics was so small prior to 2008 that no one bothered to keep track of how many there actually were.
In other words, Mitcham was a minority of a minority.
“It’s a little bit sad I think, because statistically there should be a lot more,” Mitcham told The Sydney Morning-Herald after the Olympics. “I’m not going to pressure anybody else to come out of the closet because it’s their own choice. But I’m proud to be that one that lots of other people can look up to.”
Things did not start well for Mitcham in Beijing. He finished 16th in the 3-meter springboard, failing to qualify for the finals. While the 3-meter was Mitcham’s weakest event, even he described his performance as “abominable.” As expected, Chinese divers took the gold and bronze. The same held true until the last diving event; it was one Chinese gold medal after another.
The final diving event — the men’s 10-meter platform — seemed like it would be no different, with Chinese divers Luxim Zhou and Liang Huo winning the prelims and semifinals respectively. And after the first five dives in the finals, Zhou was in complete control. While Mitcham had dived well, Zhou was flawless, establishing a seemingly insurmountable lead of more than 30 points over the second-place Mitcham going into the final dive of the Olympics.
That’s when Mitcham pulled off the single greatest dive in Olympic history — a back two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists that earned four perfect 10s and scored higher than any other dive at any other Summer Olympics.
It shocked the Chinese home crowd, who expected a thunderous celebration in the waning moments of the meet. When Zhou flubbed his final dive, it meant that Mitcham had single-handedly stopped a Chinese sweep of diving gold in a country where he was considered a lesser human being.
Just as Owens’ victory in front of Hitler had been a tremendous source of pride for African Americans, Mitcham’s gold in Beijing quickly became monumental for the gay community. Long told that they needed to stay in the closet to be successful and that gay men could not excel in sports, the LGBTI community now had a very real example of how to succeed while still being true to themselves.
Not surprisingly, Mitcham became a darling of the gay community, appearing on the covers of LGBTI magazines around the world, getting invitations to serve as grand marshall of pride parades and serving as an ambassador for the Gay Games, a quadrennial Olympics-like sporting event for LGBTI athletes. More importantly, Mitcham led the way for other Olympians to come out. There will be at least 41 out athletes competing in Rio this year, including fellow Australian Olympic champion Ian Thorpe, a swimmer, and Britain’s Tom Daley and Brazil’s Ian Matos, two publicly out divers.
Yet while Mitcham’s place in LGBTI history is entrenched forever, what he accomplished (and what he stood for) barely got a mention outside of the LGBTI community — unlike Owens, whose hero status for African Americans permeated national and international media. Even during NBC’s primetime broadcast of the men’s 10-meter finals in Beijing, the announcers failed to mention that Mitcham was openly gay despite the fact he was a minority of one at the 2008 Games. They also neglected to discuss how Mitcham and his then-partner, who was in the stands watching Mitcham compete, would be treated if they lived in China.
At first NBC claimed it didn’t “discuss an athlete’s sexual orientation” — an insulting response from a network that had claimed for years to support the LGBTI community. Mitcham’s performance was to so many gay men, including me, the most prideful sports accomplishment to date for an out athlete. After various LGBTI media outlets pointed out that NBC happily showed the wives and girlfriends of straight male athletes, the network released a weak two-sentence “apology”: “We regret that we missed the opportunity to tell Matthew Mitcham’s story. We apologize for this unintentional omission.”
And sadly, it wasn’t just NBC who ignored Mitcham. There were no Time magazine covers, Wheaties boxes or ESPN 30for30 documentaries for Mitcham either. Even Sports Illustrated only mentioned him in passing.
But maybe that’s okay. Because Mitcham’s gold wasn’t lost on those who mattered most — young LGBTI athletes starving for a hero. For them, Mitcham’s legacy will never be forgotten. They’re the ones who will bring home the next set of Olympic medals that will inspire the next generation of athletes the way Mitcham inspired them. And if that happens enough, in the not-too-distant future, the role of LGBTI athletes as a unique story will be a thing of the past, which is the true mark of equality.