LONDON, Aug 5 (Reuters) - South African archer Karen Hultzer hopes coming out as a lesbian at the London Olympics will help people struggling with their sexuality and add to the fight against homophobia in sport.
One of 23 openly gay and lesbian athletes at the London Games, Hultzer waited until after her event to go public.
After finishing 46th out of 64 in the women’s archery, she said most athletes were so focused on their performance that they could not fight other battles while competing.
“I hope this gives people some courage. The more we come out and talk about it, the more people should realise that being gay is a non-issue and we can progress,” Hultzer, 46, who has only been shooting for five years, told Reuters.
The issue of homophobia in sport dates back decades but made headlines in Britain in 1998 when English soccer player Justin Fashanu committed suicide eight years after announcing he was gay. His brother John, also a footballer, still denies he was gay.
Gay rights campaigners said there are still only a handful of top athletes who are openly gay — and usually their admissions come post-career — so have called on the International Olympic Committee to actively tackle discrimination against homosexuality in sport.
Research by online gay sport community OutSports.com found there were 23 openly gay athletes at London, of which only three are men, compared to 10 at the Beijing 2008 Games and 11 at Athens in 2004. To date, there have been 104 publicly gay athletes competing at Summer Olympics.
The United States was the most represented in the list, with 27 gay or lesbian athletes competing, while soccer was found to be the sport with the highest number of gay athletes.
“All the openly gay athletes this year are from the United States, Europe or Australia and none from Asia and only one from Africa. People are still killed for being gay in the Middle East and Africa,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of OutSports.
“Sport is still a homophobic corner of virtually every culture so it is important that we are seen at the Olympics and show solidarity.”
Ji Wallace, who won a silver medal in the men’s trampoline at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and came out in 2005, said there were two key reasons for athletes staying in the closet during their career.
Firstly, most athletes were young, still coming to terms with their sexuality, and often too busy for relationships. Bullying on school sports fields was the start of gay athletes hiding their sexuality as they wanted support from team mates.
Second, it came down to money. Athletes feared losing sponsorship or endorsements if they came out.
“Athletes need to focus totally on themselves and their game so they can chase their dreams and goals,” Australian Wallace told Reuters. “It is those of us who have finished competing to fight for future generations.”
At London, gay rights campaigners have called on the IOC to uphold the Olympic charter on equality and take a firm stand against homophobia, much as the Olympic movement has tackled racism and sexism.
Emy Ritt, co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, said the campaign had notched up a small victory by successfully lobbying London organisers to sanction the first official gay and lesbian pin featuring a rainbow, the symbol of gay pride.
“In the professional sports world we are seeing more and more athletes coming out because the younger generation sees this as far less of a stigma,” Ritt told Reuters.
“But we need to make sure that organisations like the IOC encourage equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender athletes so they feel safe coming out.”
Jonathan Cooper, a barrister and chief executive of human rights organisation Human Dignity Trust, said the Olympics were a good opportunity to highlight the 78 countries around the world where homosexuality was illegal.
“Criminalisation is a major systemic human rights problem. With criminalisation comes HIV, violence and exploitation,” said Cooper.
Hultzer, who juggles her six-hour-a-day training with running a landscaping business, hoped athletes coming out as gay would help teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality and found themselves bullied online.
“We need to stand up as role models to show that it is not bad to be gay and it is normal,” she told Reuters. (editing by Michael Holden)