Only 10 Games athletes say they are gay - survey

BEIJING Mon Aug 18, 2008 1:52am EDT

File photo of Australia's Matthew Mitcham at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing February 24, 2008.  REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV/Files

File photo of Australia's Matthew Mitcham at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing February 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV/Files

BEIJING (Reuters) - Only 10 of the 10,500 athletes competing in the Beijing Olympics are openly gay, according to a study by a gay website.

Some gay athletes fear that coming out would bring disapproval from fans and team mates, others worry about the damage to endorsements, Outsports.com said. Unwarranted media attention could also detract from their performances, it added.

Nine of the gay athletes named by Outsports were lesbians and their sports ranged from fencing to cycling. Just one, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, was a man.

Outsports said this must be way short of the real figure and argued that a more accurate estimate could even reach 1,000.

"For all we know, there is a gay rower or badminton player somewhere known as gay within his or her sport but not in a larger public context," it said.

Outsports found the figure disappointing especially after the efforts of tennis players like Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo to be more open about their sexuality.

Eli Portnoy, chief brand strategist at the Portnoy Group, a U.S. consultancy specialised in branding, said being openly gay could still work against athletes.

May brands would be wary about promoting a gay athlete, he said, citing the example of U.S. diving gold medallist Greg Louganis whose endorsements waned once he came out.

Australian diver Mitcham said he just wanted to be known as a successful Australian diver and argued that his homosexuality should not be an issue.

"It's everybody else who thinks it's special when homosexuality and elite sport go together," he said.

Outsports said it may be a good idea for athletes to take their time before speaking out about the issue.

"The vast majority of Olympic athletes are under 30, a time when even people who are not elite jocks are wrestling with their sexuality," Outsports said.

"Being an Olympic athlete requires full-time dedication and a lot of things get put on hold. It is just easier to hide and deal with one's sexuality later," it added.

Outsports concluded that gays still faced a major battle being recognised in sport for their talent, not their sexuality.

"In a classic Catch-22, the reluctance of gay athletes to come out will be tough to overcome until more like them come forward and prove that being a 'gay athlete' is not an oxymoron or hindrance to success."

(Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith)