He is one of Britain's pre-eminent rugby stars, captaining the Wales and British Lions teams and respected by millions for his performances on the pitch. But when worldwide plaudits for Gareth Thomas poured in yesterday, they were not hailing his sporting prowess, but congratulating him on an altogether more courageous achievement.
Thomas yesterday became the first international player to come out as gay. In the most macho of games, his public confirmation of his sexuality was heralded as a major, taboo-breaking breakthrough.
Last night the spectre of prejudice in sport was confirmed when the PR adviser Max Clifford revealed that he had advised two footballer clients to stay in the closet, because football "remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia".
Thomas, 35, had even considered suicide, such was the depth of anguish he'd felt at keeping his sexuality a secret. Before going public, he said in an interview with the Daily Mail – believed to be at his instigation – he was "anxious about people's reactions", but his fears were quickly allayed when messages of support began to arrive from leading figures in the rugby world, as well as from hundreds of ordinary fans. The former Wales international full-back, who is his nations's most-capped player, said: "I just want to thank everyone for the amazing response I have received... I hope that by saying this I can make a big difference to others in my situation."
Thomas retired from international rugby after winning 100 caps but still plays for the Cardiff Blues and was yesterday on the bench for their Heineken Cup quarter-final game against Toulouse. He described keeping the secret throughout his professional career as "like a tight knot in my stomach, always threatening to seep out". Affectionately (and sometimes less affectionately) known as "the only gay in the scrummage" by fans, Thomas's sexuality had been an open secret in the game for many years.
Until now, referee Nigel Owens was the only person in international rugby to come out as gay. Owens, who also considered suicide before coming out in 2007, told the IoS: "It's very brave of him. I've been there myself so I know how hard it is, but as a player I think it's probably even more difficult. He's made it easier for the next guys now; this is breaking new ground."
Progress is slow for homosexual professional sports players, with the numbers of high-profile and openly gay sportsmen still in single figures, despite the fact that statistically there must be scores more.
Justin Fashanu was the first, and still the only, prominent footballer to identify himself publicly as gay in 1990. He later committed suicide after being accused of sexual assault. No evidence was found of the assault and his suicide note showed the anguish he had felt at being presumed guilty. John Amaechi, the British former NBA basketball player, came out in 2007, only to receive a torrent of threatening emails.
The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell praised Thomas. "Rugby is a very macho sport and has traditionally had a very robust he-man, heterosexual image, so it's really great that he has had the guts to be honest with himself and his fans. Hopefully this will ease the way for other gay and bisexual players to come out".Reuse content