Matthew Mitcham is solid gold
Going into Round 6 of the 10m platform diving competition in Beijing, Matthew Mitcham was a longshot for the gold. China had so far swept every gold in the sport and Zhou Luxin, despite a weak final dive was still well ahead of Mitcham.
Then Mitcham took to the platform, the pressure of a single moment that could define his career in the making. He approached and performed his most difficult dive of the competition - a back 2 1/2 somersault with 2 1/2 twists.
And he nailed it.
He had not only performed under pressure one of the most difficult dives in the sport, he had earned four perfect 10’s and the highest score ever awarded in that Olympic event.
For millions of viewers around the world, that dive - which was widely acknowledged as one of the highlights of the Beijing Games - was made even more significant by the fact that Matthew Mitcham was the only openly gay male athlete at the 2008 Olympics.
Matthew Mitcham’s decision to come out was a big one (though he rarely talks about it in such terms) and one that has stirred its fair share of controversy.
Before the Olympics it was Mitcham’s campaign to get Johnson & Johnson’s fund for family members of athletes to cover the cost of his partner’s trip, which they eventually did. Then, it was NBC’s decision to not air Mitcham’s post-dive celebration, which included a brief kiss and embrace of his boyfriend. The network vehemently denied there was any censorship involved in the decision.
Most recently, the controversy has centered on allegations that Mitcham is not receiving the same sponsorship a straight diver in the same position would. For almost six months following the Olympics, he did not lock in a single sponsor, and even now, the sexy diver that was the darling of Beijing has only a single sponsor to his name - the Australian telecommunications company Telstra. Where, pray tell, are the underwear brands that make their living on gay men who want to see gorgeous guys like Mitcham in jocks?
However, it is not in Mitcham’s nature to ask such questions or to even complain about the lack of sponsorship. In fact, he has been quick to put it down to the economy, not to any discrimination or homophobia, claiming "A lot of people don’t have a lot of spare cash in their pockets at the moment because of the financial situation, so a lot of athletes have been having a hard time."
Pressed to answer, point blank if coming out hurt his chance for sponsorship, Mitcham is diplomatic, expressing gratitude for the support he has received and reiterating that coming out was not about sponsorship - it was about plain old honesty.
"It’s not like I can compare whether I hadn’t come out to whether I had come out. I have received wonderful, fantastic, only positive support from the community since coming out... I don’t think I would have done the Olympics without coming out because I think I would have been lying to my country by omission, by not presenting all of me. I’m proud of who I am and I wanted everyone to know who they were going for, who they were cheering for, I wanted them to know exactly who I was and not find out later and feel like there may have been deceit. I would feel like I was deceiving if I wasn’t totally honest."
In a world awash with sports scandals, such as Michael Phelps smoking dope and cyclists cheating with performance-enhancing drugs, Matthew Mitcham, the lone gay athlete in Beijing, has, somewhat ironically, been the one to take a stand for morality and athlete accountability.
Australia’s Golden Boy
While Matthew Mitcham may not have sponsors beating down a path to his door, he has nevertheless seized his moment in the spotlight to get out some important messages.
Mitcham has used his appointment as the Ambassador for Men’s Health in Australia to help improve health outcomes and education for young men, particularly young gay men. More than just a title, Mitcham has participated in conferences and contributed to discussions to define Men’s Health policy in Australia.
Once that policy is made, explains Mitcham, "I will help apply it and educate people about the policy. Obviously my niche, my demographic is young men, but it is also gay men, so I’ll be involved in different areas, all promoting healthiness, whether that be sex checks or healthy eating or exercise or getting cancer treated. A lot of men think maybe they are a little bit invincible. Women get regular check ups more often than men and a lot of men go without for a long time and end up finding something when it is too late. If I can prevent that, I would like to."
Moreover, says Mitcham, he is committed to improving the levels of participation for gay men in elite sports.
"There’s a lot of discrimination, and there’s a very macho attitude with a lot of sports, so a lot of gay boys feel a little reluctant to put themselves in that situation. We might be losing some of our potential best athletes. Imagine if Greg Louganis decided not to dive because he thought he would be the victim of homophobia and discrimination. We wouldn’t have the best diver in the world, in diving history.
"I went to a gay youth event a couple of weeks ago and I said, ’Look, you can do anything - you don’t have to be afraid, you don’t have to be scared, just persist and be strong because you can be anything you want to be. Look what I did.’"
Yet, acknowledges Mitcham, the challenges of engaging and keeping promising gay athletes involved in elite athletics is not going to get easier overnight. The problem will really only be solved when society is "not just tolerant, but accepting and embracing of it, which may or may not ever happen."
Luckily the community has found an ideal spokesperson and advocate in Matthew Mitcham, who since coming out has not once wavered in standing with the gay community.
In early March, Mitcham appeared in his first ever Mardi Gras in Sydney as the Chief of Parade, dancing in a sexy little Aussie sporting number (sadly it wasn’t his speedos!) to kick off the parade. While Mitcham certainly cut loose and had a bit of fun, he was careful to always be mindful of his public persona, particularly when it came to the notoriously debaucherous Mardi Gras party.
"I’m allowed to have fun," he said, "but there have been so many athletes who have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and whether they were innocent or not, they’ve copped a lot of flak for that. I’m going to be embodiment of sobriety and responsibility, just because I don’t want to be put in that position."
But what about the diving?
While Mitcham has done a praiseworthy job of navigating Mardi Gras and sponsorship, Men’s Health messages and Michael Phelps’ slip up, he has always kept at the center of his focus what put him in the spotlight to begin with - diving.
Following the Olympics, Mitcham rode a wave of excitement and publicity that was a real high. When the Olympic buzz died down though, Mitcham had to face the same question countless other gold medalists have - what next?
"I planned for my gold medal winning performance to be in London," Mitcham laughs, "and I sort of surprised myself by achieving it early. Now I have achieved the only real goal I had in diving, so now I have to set a higher goal."
In short, that higher goal is "more golds."
And for the rest of us, the higher hope is that by 2012, there will be a few more good gay men to cheer for.