Team LGBTQ: A record number of Olympians from around the world participated in the rescheduled Summer Games.
When the torch goes out at Japan’s National Stadium in Meiji-Jingu Park, it means the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games have come to an end – some call it the “rainbow Olympics” for the record number of LGBTQ participants.
At least 182 athletes from 30 countries participated in the Tokyo Games, more than triple the number of participants at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, according to the LGBTQ sports website Outsports.
At least 55 of those athletes, competing in 35 sports, won medals – only the U.S. women’s basketball team won five gold medals. In fact, if LGBTQ Olympians had performed as their own country, which Outsports affectionately calls “Team LGBTQ,” they would have finished 11th overall in the medal standings (just behind France and before Canada) with 32 team and individual medals: 11 gold, 12 silver and nine bronze.
“The presence and performance of these outsiders was a huge sensation at these Games,” Outsports founder Sid Zeigler said in an email. “30% of all LGBTQ Olympians in Tokyo won a medal, which means they didn’t just show up, they performed at a very high level.”
Gold medalist Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil poses after the 10-kilometer women’s marathon swim at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo Aug. 4.
Gold medalists include Brazilian swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha in the 10 kilometers; French martial arts master Amandine Bouchard in the mixed judo team; Venezuelan track and field athlete Yulimar Rojas in the triple jump; Irish boxer Kelly Harrington; New Zealand paddler Emma Twigg; and members of the U.S. women’s basketball team Kelly Harrington and Emma Twigg. women’s basketball team members Sue Bird, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart and Diane Taurasi; U.S. basketball player Stephanie Dolson, who plays 3-on-3; Canadian women’s soccer team members Quinn, Kadeisha Buchanan, Erin McLeod, Kaylen Sheridan and Stephanie Labbe; French handball players Amandine Leino and Alexandra Lacrabert; New Zealand rugby players Gail Broughton, Ruby Tui, Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman; and, of course, British diver Tom Daly, who finally took gold in synchronized diving at his fourth Games.
Emma Twigg of New Zealand poses with the gold medal in the women’s rowing singles final at the Tokyo Olympics on July 30.
“I feel incredibly proud to say I’m gay and also an Olympic champion,” Daly, 27, told reporters after he and his diving partner Matty Lee posted a winning score of 471.81 on the 10-meter platform. “When I was younger, I didn’t think I could accomplish anything because of who I am. The fact that I became an Olympic champion shows that you can achieve anything.”
Tom Daley of Great Britain knits in the stands in Tokyo on Aug. 2.
Daley’s victory, accompanied by pictures of him knitting a tiny cozy for his medal, was just one of many queer stories that happened at the Games.
After she won silver for the Philippines, welterweight boxer Nesti Petesio told reporters, “I’m proud to be part of the LGBTQ community,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported,
“Let’s go fight!” – she added. “This fight is also for the LGBTQ community.”
Nesti Petesio with a silver medal after losing to Japan’s Sena Iriya in the women’s featherweight 60-kilogram boxing final Tuesday in Tokyo.
The 2020 Summer Games will also feature the first transgender Olympians – including Canada’s Quinn, who won a gold medal with her country’s women’s soccer team. Quinn, a midfielder who uses the pronouns “they” and “not,” helped the team win gold after the match against Sweden. Before becoming transgender, Quinn won bronze with Team Canada at the 2016 Rio Summer Games.
In a July 22 Instagram post, Quinn said he was sad that “there were Olympians before me who couldn’t live up to their truth because of the world.”
After the championship match, Quinn wrote on Instagram, “Olympic champions! Did that really just happen!!!?”.
There were also stories of activism off the playing field: American shot putter Raven Saunders risked losing her silver medal after raising her arms and crossing them in an “X” gesture while standing on the podium.
Sanders, a lesbian, said the symbol represented “an intersection where all oppressed people meet,” the Associated Press reported. “My message is to keep fighting, to keep getting your way, to keep finding value in yourself, to find value in everything you do.”
Sanders, who has talked about her struggle with depression, advocates for both racial justice and mental health.
“I’m not just fighting for myself,” Saunders told NBC Olympics reporter Lewis Johnson after the ceremony. “I’m fighting for a lot more people. I want to thank everyone in the LGBTQ community. Everyone who deals with mental health issues. Everyone who’s black. I’m giving a shout out to everybody.”
International Olympic Committee rules prohibit political statements or protests on the podium, but the organization suspended its investigation into Saunders’ actions after she announced that her mother, Clarissa Saunders, had died.
There were some heartwarming stories: After winning a silver medal in the women’s quad, Polish rower Katarzyna Zilman publicly thanked her friend.
“I called my friend, Julia Walczak, a Canadian,” Zilman told Wirtualna Polska. “I showed her the medal. She confessed to me that she had been one big lump of nerves for the last two weeks. And today she was relaxed. It’s also a day of great relief and relaxation for me, after five years of thinking every day about the race for an Olympic medal and the moment when we win it.”
Zilman had spoken in the press about same-sex relationships before, she told Sportowe Fakty, “but for some reason it wasn’t published.”
State-sanctioned homophobia in Poland has intensified in recent years, with dozens of cities passing ordinances declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones.” President Andrzej Duda won a second five-year term last year after calling LGBTQ ideology “more destructive” than communism and signing a “Family Charter” banning same-sex marriage, gay adoption rights and teaching LGBTQ issues in schools.
Zillman said she is happy to use the Games to advocate for the LGBTQ community.
“I know I’m going to help others this way,” she told Sportowe Fakty. “It was enough that I showed up wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Sports Against Homophobia,’ and I got several messages from young girls rowing. One of them opened up to me, told me about her difficult home situation and confessed that I had helped her a lot with my attitude. One message like that is enough to completely forget about the thousands of hate comments and disgusted faces.”
A few days after Zillman’s press conference, Italian archer Lucilla Boari also came out after defeating American Mackenzie Brown to win bronze, becoming the first Italian woman to win a medal in the sport.
At a press conference broadcast live, Boari received a message of encouragement from Dutch archer Sanne de Laat, who was not present at the Games.
“This is super, super, super awesome, and I’m very proud of you,” de Laat said, according to Advocate. “I can’t wait for you to be here so I can hug you as tightly as I can. I love you so much. Great job.”
A tearful Boari told reporters, “This is Sanne, my girlfriend.”
Although Italy, a largely Catholic country, does not have the same anti-LGBTQ reputation as Poland, it is among the more conservative countries in Western Europe. Same-sex marriages are not recognized, and anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation and gender identity are limited.
Joanna Hoffman, communications director for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that advocates for inclusivity in sports at all levels, said the historic number of Olympians and Paralympians “speaks volumes about how far we’ve come in terms of inclusivity, visibility and representation.”
“The athletes who are stepping up at this year’s Games are groundbreaking not only because of their own victories, but because they showed the world that LGBTQ+ people have a place in every area of life, especially in sports,” Hoffman told NBC News.
But she stressed that creating an inclusive sports culture requires a holistic approach “and never puts the onus on the LGBTQ+ athlete to open up.”
“Rather, coaches, leagues and governing bodies must create and maintain a safe space for athletes to feel they can be themselves if and when they do open up.”