Coming out can still be scary for Olympic athletes

In Olympic sport, athletes are all too often singularly defined by a moment, a trait or an obstacle. 

Intentional or not, it’s a by-product of a spotlight that realistically only shines once every four years. In those moments, an athlete may become the face of fair play, dedication or excellence.  But for LBGTQ athletes, there remains an additional consideration that demonstrates sport still has ground to cover before it can truly be considered inclusive. In many sports, coming out publicly still becomes a large part of that athlete’s narrative.

“I didn’t come out for publicity, it was in light of the anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia,” shared retired Olympic speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, who felt compelled to come out in advance of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

Jullian Svensson

“I didn’t want to be the ‘gay speed skater’ but at the same time, I was a gay speed skater in a sport that traditionally doesn’t have many gay athletes,” said Bucsis, who now works for CBC Sports. “It is part of my identity but it doesn’t define me. I am very happy and very proud of who I am.”  

For Bucsis, coming out was a scary process. Depressed, lonely and paralyzed by a self-described feeling of not being authentic, Bucsis knew she needed to speak up. Her mental health was suffering and she felt robbed of the joy her sport had brought her. Finally comfortable in her own skin, she competed as one of the few openly gay athletes in Sochi and achieved personal satisfaction that her ranking didn’t do justice. 

But despite her positive Olympic feelings, the heightened attention on LGBTQ athletes because of the spotlight on Russia’s human rights violations also took its toll.

“I didn’t speak to the media at all in Sochi, I just couldn’t,” she said. “I wanted the focus to be on my sport but at the same time if I did speak to them, I knew I’d be asked about being a gay athlete competing in Russia. On some level though, by not speaking I felt like I was letting both sides [the sport and the LBGT community] down.”

Compelled to speak out

Curler John Epping didn’t think he’d ever feel compelled to speak publically about being gay.

“I didn’t ever think I would come out to the media. I didn’t see the need; it served me no purpose to do it. My team and the sport have always been fantastic and I’m proud to say that competitively, it has always been a complete non-issue. Plus, curling is a team sport and I didn’t want to individually put attention on our team,” Epping said.

“But I started acting as an ambassador for You Can Play and I realized that by sharing I could have an impact. It’s an honour and a privilege to be at this place in my sport and I owe it to the LBGTQ community, the sport and You Can Play to act as a role model and help educate people.”

Like Bucsis, Epping doesn’t want to be remembered as a “gay curler” but instead as a great curler that was also gay. They both understand that despite being a non-issue within their respective support systems and sports, there remain some milestones to cross before being gay in sport truly becomes normalized. 

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in Canada,” said Olympic swimming champion Mark Tewksbury. “I hope with the attention, tangibles things continue to be done. I’ve witnesses the changes made by the Canadian Olympic Committee Charter to ensure LGBTQ athletes are guaranteed freedom from discrimination, the creation of the both You Can Play and the COC’s One Team and real discussion at the board level about issues of inclusion. But we aren’t there yet, we still need to be vigilant and keep talking.”

Changing a narrative doesn’t happen with silence. It takes more conversation and more athletes to publically engage in sharing their stories before being gay can truly become so normal that frankly, it just isn’t interesting or different. A day where it seems just as silly to write about Anastasia Bucsis the speed skater who is gay as it does Deidra Dionne, the skier who is straight.

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