Is Ian Thorpe’s televised confessional to be seen as some kind of step forward? It seems to me this kind of stage-managed coming-out is a measure of how far we still have to travel before there is widespread acceptance of homosexuality in sport, or life for that matter.
To the well-adjusted among us the revelation falls flat. So what? Did you see the game last night, etc?
But Thorpe is not addressing the developed mind, but age-old prejudices that are still with us, rooted in ancient cultural mores and superstitions that won’t be going anywhere as long as people still invest in ideas of heaven and hell.
Michael Parkinson described the interview with Thorpe as one of his best, which kind of makes the point. Well, he had some material here, a celebrity Olympian riven with complexity, who at the height of his fame was one of the world’s most recognisable athletes.
There has always been a tension at the heart of the Thorpe story linked to his sexual orientation. His subsequent bouts of depression were often linked to the pressure of concealment, a dangerous conflation since it suggests that were Thorpe not enveloped by anxiety relating to his sexual preferences he would have enjoyed sound mental health.
This is a further tax on homosexuals, as if orientation were an affliction. Is the gay community not exposed to the same pressures that impinge on more conventional lives? It also shifts the emphasis, in a sense diminishing the importance of mental health issues. Depression is indiscriminate, it does not care about the sleeping arrangements of Tom, Dick or Harry.
Clearly it cannot have been easy having to deny an essential truth about his nature, but it does the gay community and victims of mental health issues no favours to connect the two absolutely. The chances are Thorpe might have been found sitting disoriented in a stranger’s car in Sydney earlier this year irrespective of personal circumstances.
It is a pity that Thorpe has to declare his hand at all. There is enough material in Thorpe’s magnificent contribution to swimming and the Olympic ideal for Parkinson to probe. After Cathy Freeman, Thorpe was the story of the Sydney Games, not only fulfilling the requirements of Australian excellence in the pool, but expressing something of the God-like quality exhibited by the greatest Olympians, and at just 17 years old.
A total of nine Olympic medals, five of them gold, across two Olympiads, 11 world titles and 22 world records is some career imprint to leave behind. But that is as nothing compared to the confirmation that Thorpe sleeps with men.
Jason Collins, the American basketballer who went public with his gay orientation last year, was among the first to tweet acceptance: “Cheers. Your story will help inspire many. Wishing you happiness and know that millions of us support and love you.” Collins added the standard “pride” and “LBGT” hashtags that bind the community.
Others expressed the hope that young sportsmen starting out in their careers will not have to wait until they are 31 to declare their hand. That there needs to be a declaration at all demonstrates the glacial pace at which real change is happening.
Tom Daley is an obvious example of a young athlete confident enough to come out and get on with his life. Most do not have that same sense of security and choose to remain hidden behind conventional appearances.
It will be interesting to see what freedoms and peace the revelation affords Thorpe now. I can’t imagine the confession will have endeared him to the “moral majority” from which he has spent his adult life running. His position has changed, not theirs. It will, one assumes, allow him to be more at peace with himself, but again, this is not to say that the depression for which he has been treated will abate.
Scepticism about the impact on youngsters wrestling with the same dilemma is still the dominant emotion evinced by Thorpe’s declaration.
This is not about sport, but life. Sport is often portrayed as a tool for forcing through change. It was never that. For real change to happen there has to be a readiness. Sport might be a vehicle for raising awareness but it is not the fundamental mover and shaker many would have us believe.
Collins remains the only openly gay athlete in the major professional codes in American sport, one gay man in all of basketball, baseball, gridiron and hockey, not to mention golf, tennis, athletics, and so on. Sadly that is a silence that drowns out any applause greeting Thorpe’s belated announcement.