Tokyo 2020 broke an Olympic record for LGBTI representation. Here’s why that matters

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director, The Trevor Project

  • The 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo featured 172 athletes who identify as LGBTI – more than the total number of LGBTI athletes who have participated in all previous Summer and Winter Games;
  • Representation in sports and at such a global level can dramatically impact the collective well-being of a marginalized group and even save lives;
  • In research from the Trevor project, LGBTI youth who participated in sports reported nearly 20% lower rates of depressive symptoms compared to those who do not.

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo featured an unprecedented 172 athletes who identify as LGBTI. This is more than three times the number of LGBTI athletes at the last Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and more than the total number of out athletes in all previous Summer and Winter Olympics put together.

British diver Tom Daley used his gold medal win – in which he became one of the first openly out gay men to ever win gold – as an opportunity to send a message to LGBTI youth. “I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone and that you can achieve anything and there is a whole lot of your chosen family out here ready to support you,” Daley said. “I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion.”

American swimmer Erica Sullivan won silver in the 1500m freestyle event and celebrated by saying: “I’m multicultural. I’m queer. I’m a lot of minorities (…) Just me getting to be on the podium, in Japan, as an Asian American woman and getting to take silver in a historical women’s event for the first time, as someone who likes women and identifies as gay – it’s so cool. It’s awesome.”

While the representation and celebration of LGBTI identities at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games is historic, it’s also seismically important. Representation can dramatically impact the collective well-being of a marginalized group. In research from The Trevor Project, more than 80% of youth said that celebrities who are LGBTI positively impacted how they feel about being LGBTI. The significance of this number is starkly placed into context when we consider that 42% of LGBTI youth respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, according to The Trevor Project’s recent National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

Increased inclusion in sports enables more young people to reap the character-building, community and mental health benefits of sports environments. As the above data suggests, we cannot understate the extent to which this watershed moment could have a more profound lasting impact. LGBTI youth who participated in sports reported nearly 20% lower rates of depressive symptoms compared to those who do not. Conversely, exclusion from sports on the grounds of LGBTI identity is a form of discrimination associated with increased suicidality and mental health challenges amongst LGBTI youth. Beyond explicit exclusion, our conversations with LGBTI young people demonstrate that many feel so othered from the sports community at large that they never even consider getting involved.

This record-breaking Olympics for LGBTI representation is to be celebrated. However, we can be under no illusions about how far we still have to go. An assault on the rights of transgender and nonbinary youth to participate in sports is underway: nine states in the US have all recently introduced bans on the participation of these individuals at school-level.

Sports continue to be a fertile ground for alienation for LGBTI youth and this is reflected in our research: sports participation was more common among LGBTI youth who were less out about their LGBTI identity. One in three LGBTI youth who were not out to anyone about their sexual orientation participated in sports compared to one in five who were out to all or most of those they knew. “I avoided athletic activities out of terror, not disinterest,” one LGBTI youth told The Trevor Project.

Sports participation was more common among LGBTQ youth who were less “out” about their LGBTQ identity.
Sports participation more common among LGBTI youth who were less “out” about their LGBTI identity Image: Trevor Project

The 2020 Olympic Games, in conjunction with high-profile athletes such as Carl Nassib and Luke Prokop coming out in recent weeks, are encouraging signs of the times we are living in. This progress in the context of the Olympics is especially important given that it’s taking place on a global stage. But we cannot make this cultural shift in sports incumbent upon individuals. Social pressure and expectations have reached untenable levels, as evidenced by Olympic athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles’ courageous decisions to prioritize their mental health and openly discuss their struggles. The onus is on managers, coaches, and, chiefly, institutions, as I’ve argued before.

The incredible increase in athletes who have proudly expressed their LGBTI identity at the Summer Olympic Games underscores that many of these individuals likely entered into their sports and endured years of training feeling like they couldn’t be their authentic self. The number of potential athletes being excluded because they feel unwelcome in this space is untold and will be forever unknown, inhibiting both individual and collective potential. If the Olympic Games are truly about exhibiting the best talent available to a nation, we must make sure everyone feels welcome to participate and thrive.

Increased inclusion and representation can have a transformative impact on the well-being and mental health of LGBTI youth, especially at a time when transgender and nonbinary youth are being targeted and scapegoated. I hope that by the next Summer Olympics in 2024, we can look back on this year and celebrate just how far we’ve come.

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