The Olympics have been around for a century plus some change, and it’s probably not a huge shock that for most of that time, LGBTQ athletes haven’t had a great time.
There’s a fantastic writeup on Outsports by Olympic historian Tony Sculpham-Bilton, detailing some of the terrible trials that the world put queer athletes through for decades. They’re generally pretty grim, and often involve the Nazis.
For example, there’s Niels Bukh, a Danish gymnast whom Hitler recruited. He was secretly gay when he participated in the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, but outed by a former partner after he started working for the Nazis.
Prior to the rise of Hitler, Germany was a fairly accepting place for LGBTQs, and sent gay Olympian Otto Pelzer to compete in 1928. Rather than working for the Nazis, he was arrested for homosexuality and imprisoned at a concentration camp for years. Following the war, he fled to India, coached there for several years, then died of a heart attack in 1970.
Then there was Helen Stephens, an American who ran an incredibly fast 100 meter dash. Her story is particularly strange: after she won, accusations flew that she was actually a man. Someone from the Olympics actually checked her and confirmed that she was a woman. But one of her accusers, Poland’s Stanislawa Walasiewicz, later turned out to be intersex.
The first openly gay athlete wouldn’t compete until 1988. Equestrian Robert Dover from America came out during the Olympics in Seoul. His partner, Robert Ross, is an equestrian as well.
And that’s only scratching the surface of the often-strange, usually-dark history of queer people in the Olympics. Read up on our history, and remember to thank your lucky stars that you’re living at a time when athletes can be openly out proud.
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