Out-and-proud diver’s words as important as his medal-winning performance

The significance of sport in life can be overplayed. Let’s face it, so much of it is inflated and exaggerated.

The best ever. Never before. Greatest of all time. World’s best. You hear it weekly from commentators and in front bar conversations or the schoolyard.

Jesse Owens breaking down social barriers at the 1936 Olympics.Credit:Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sport, in a dispassionate sense, is simply escapism. A distraction from the grind of daily life. To some, it delivers a sense of belonging or shared experience.

But every now and then, moments that are packed with real meaning come along.

That’s the reason we still talk about Jesse Owens at Berlin – Hitler’s Games – in 1936. A 22-year-old African American who won gold medals in the long jump, the 100- and 200-metre dashes and the 4 x 100-metre relay. Whether or not Owens was snubbed by the Fuhrer (accounts differ), there is little doubt he was later snubbed by his own President. On his return, there was no invitation to the White House. That was reserved for white athletes.

It’s why, despite Owens’ success in breaking down social barriers, the image of US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos in a black power salute at the 1968 Games in Mexico City three decades on remains so evocative. Their struggle continued.

Of course, Australians have Cathy Freeman who, in 2000, inspired a generation of Indigenous people, including a young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boy in Canberra who would carry the flag at an Olympics 21 years on.

On Monday, a similarly inspiring tale unfolded by the pool. But one that in 2021 many, perhaps understandably, will shrug their shoulders at and mutter to themselves “so what?“.

British diver Tom Daley, 27, has competed at the elite level as an openly gay man for seven years now. On Monday, he added Olympic gold in the men’s synchronised 10m platform dive to his bronze medals in London and Rio and numerous world championship successes.

So what? He is not the first gay man to compete nor win gold at the Olympics. There is an ever-growing list. But in Daley’s case, it was as much about what he said as his winning dive itself.

Tom Daley is not the first gay man to compete nor win gold at the Olympics. But it was what he said as much as his winning dive that made the moment so important for so many.Credit:Getty Images

“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” he told reporters after the medal ceremony.

“When I was younger I didn’t think I’d ever achieve anything because of who I was … There was something about me that was never going to be as good as what society wanted me to be.

“I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone. You can achieve anything.”

Professional sport is no longer an unconquered frontier for LGBT athletes but there has been just a handful of out-and-proud men competing at the elite level around the world in the past decade.

Even then, the overwhelming majority of those have been on the periphery. Some come out in their final years of competition and others that muster the courage earlier drop off in form and drift into obscurity.

And that’s what makes Daley different. He is at the peak of his powers.

Australia’s most successful Olympian, Ian Thorpe, came out a decade after winning the last of his five gold medals. Like this writer and too many others, he endured a decade of his adulthood tormented, tortured and confused. Even the greatest has conceded he too often stared into the abyss and questioned whether it was worth it.

Diver Matthew Mitcham, who was openly gay when he won gold for Australia at Beijing, did not appear as comfortable talking about his sexuality at the time but has since recounted his personal struggle with mental health and substance abuse. So too swimmer Daniel Kowalski on his depression and bulimia.

Gay rights and community acceptance in Australia have come so far in the past decade it’s sometimes hard to remember what things were like before.

But for those of you reading this over your breakfast, on your phone or at your desk, you’ll probably interact with a colleague, friend, brother, sister, son or daughter today who has not let you nor anyone else into their terrifying little secret. And it still can be the most terrifying and loneliest secret to keep.

Daley knows this all too well despite the fortune of living most of his adult life as an openly gay man. Many of those athletes he competes against cannot.

He and diving partner Matty Lee were flanked on the podium by Chinese and Russian competitors, with their press conference beamed into the living rooms of both nations. Neither country is a shining beacon for LGBT rights.

It’s why in 2018, after winning Commonwealth Games gold in Australia, Daley made a plea for more of the countries competing to decriminalise homosexuality.

“Coming to the Gold Coast and being able to live as an openly gay man is really important in being able to feel comfortable with who you are when standing on that diving board,” he said. “For 37 countries that are here participating, that’s very much not the case.”

Many feared gold would elude Daley, who is at his fourth Games. He has often been encouraged by his coaches and mentors to focus more on his day job and less on his social crusade to ensure he fulfilled his obvious talent.

Thank goodness for thousands of gay men, young and old, closeted or out in the open, that he never listened.

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