LGBT2Q+ Success and Barriers in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Written on 08/09/2021
Tessa Wotherspoon

The 2020 summer Olympics, which ended on Sunday, August 8th, saw a record number of LGBTQ+ competitors. In turn, some have now declared this year’s games the ‘Rainbow Olympics. However, some argue that the Olympics and global sports have a long way to go to become an inclusive space for the queer community.

How can we as a community celebrate these successes without forgetting the systemic struggles queer athletes still face?

The number of out athletes tripled this year in comparison to the 2016 Summer Games. In total, athletes who openly identify as LGBTQ+ brought home 32 medals: 11 gold, 12 silver, and 9 bronze. Some of the athletes within this medal count include Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil), who won gold in the 10k marathon swim; Nesthy Petecio (Philippines), who won silver in women’s featherweight boxing; and Tom Daley, who won bronze in the 10-meter platform dive.

While this dramatic increase in LGBTQ+ visibility and success in the Olympics is a bold leap forward for the global sporting community, there are still barriers that must be overcome to make the global sporting community a safe and accepting place for everyone.

Diver Tom Daley states that while he is glad that he can inspire others to be openly queer athletes, there are still many systemic issues impacting acceptance and diversity within the Olympics and sport as a whole.

Some of the barriers Daley refers to that continue to exist include rigid gender expectations, which can alienate LGBTQ+ folks from competing and deter their performance. For example, transgender athlete Fumino Sugiyama who pre-transition was on Japan’s female national fencing team, states that while they were an elite athlete, the pressure they faced from coaches and teammates to fit within gender roles impacted their athletic performance and confidence.

According to Sugiyama, his coaches would criticize his short hair and inquire whether he had a boyfriend. Eventually, in combination with Sugiyama’s anxieties around hormone treatment, while competing in elite sport and getting the cold shoulder treatment from teammates, he made the decision to quit.

As echoed by Tom Daley and many other queer athletes, while we can and should celebrate the success of LGBTQ+ athletes in the Tokyo Olympics, we must additionally use it as an opportunity to shed light on these devastating barriers that our community still faces in global sports. After all, as we push towards a more inclusive and equitable world, we can expect the number of openly queer athletes, and in turn, our communities success within sport, to continue to rise.

Tessa Wotherspoon is an undergraduate student at UBCO double majoring in Sociology and Political Science. Her research interests include anti-capitalism, labour, critical animal studies, and feminist/queer theory. They are a local activist in Kelowna, British Columbia.

(Image Credit: Getty Images/Composite by Shelby Weldon)