How to avoid storms over Rio’s rainbow issues

Tom Daley, Caster Semenya, married gay hockey players, transgender athletes… Journalists and editors covering the Rio Games shouldn’t shy away from the LGBTI angles, writes JON HOLMES

“Got something I need to say…” The ITV documentary Tom Daley: Diving for Gold showed the moment on a Monday morning in December 2013 that the Olympic bronze medallist tweeted that phrase, along with the YouTube video in which he revealed he was in a relationship with a man.

Caster Semenya: likely to be one of the stories of the Rio Games. How do you report it fairly?
Caster Semenya: likely to be one of the stories of the Rio Games. How do you report it fairly?

“It felt like the world was going to end,” recalled Daley. His mum Debbie was also fearful. “The press can be very cruel if they want to be. That was my worry.”

As those of us working in the media will remember, the over- whelming reaction from our industry was in fact sensitive and empowering. In print, broadcast and online, the significance of Daley’s story was emphasised. Support for the then 19-year-old came in waves via social media too, and I imagine the majority of conversations in sports newsrooms reflected that mood. However, there was some negativity – and not just the occasional blatant homophobic tweet in reply to Daley’s. “I don’t want to know about his private life,” was one comment I remember a colleague making, in a chat that day at work. “It’s totally irrelevant,” was another.

To Daley, though, his revelation wasn’t about his “private life” – it was about his sexuality, and it was relevant to him to discuss it openly. Recently, he admitted that before meeting his now fiancé Dustin Lance Black, he had considered quitting diving. And speaking to The Guardian‘s Simon Hattenstone last summer, Daley said not coming out could affect a sportsman too. “You can panic about it. It can be in your head; it becomes a bigger thing than it needs to be. So yes, definitely.” Love, pride and sport, all intertwined – and soon, a return to medal-winning form.

Now Daley’s story awaits the next big chapter – Rio. At the time of writing, he is one of 43 “out” LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) athletes in a total of more than 10,500 at the 2016 Games, according to – up from 23 at London 2012. Eight members of the Great Britain team in Rio are openly gay or lesbian, including Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, the Great Britain hockey players and the first gay married couple to compete at the Olympics.

Nothing suggests being out has been any sort of distraction – quite the opposite, in fact.

These encouraging signs of equality are only part of the greater LGBTI picture at the Olympics, however.

Since Sochi 2014, the Olympic Charter has been updated to include “sexual orientation” in its non-discrimination clause; new IOC guidelines have been introduced which allow transgender athletes to compete without having had gender assignment surgery (instead, transgender women must demonstrate low testosterone levels to gain eligibility); and a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling has resulted in the suspension of IAAF testosterone regulation in women, resulting in female athletes with the medical condition hyperandrogenism, such as Caster Semenya, posting markedly improved track times.

These developments ahead of Rio 2016, plus ongoing debate around human rights in World Cup host nations Russia and Qatar, and various campaigns fighting homophobia in sport, mean LGBTI awareness is more important than ever in our industry. In the past, some journalists may have chosen to side-step such issues, but balance isn’t so hard to find – and striving for better is, after all, an Olympic ideal.

First, using the correct terminology and finding the right context are crucial. Acronyms are designed to assist matters, not confuse them (please don’t dismiss as “alphabet soup”) and how an athlete identifies is part of their narrative. Sporting prowess will always be the focus when reporting on an athlete’s achievements but when appropriately framed, mentions of sexuality or gender can inspire other LGBTI people – in many cases, those athletes may be breaking new ground entirely.

The case of Semenya – sure to be among Rio’s hottest topics – requires particular attention to detail. Before the starter fires the first starting gun of the Games, some bookmakers have the South African 800 metres runner as short as 1/20 for the women’s final on Saturday, August 20, on what will be the last night of athletics in the Olympic Stadium. Having won the 400, 800 and 1,500m titles at her national championships, she is also considering entry into the 400m (Semenya is keen, her coach less so), so she may have already struck gold earlier that week.

Olympic diver Tom Daley with his partner, Dustin Lance Black

Seven years ago, on the day Semenya won gold as an 18-year-old at the world championships in Berlin, it emerged that the IAAF, the sport’s world governing body, had requested she undergo a gender test. South Africa rallied around its young star in the ensuing row – accusations of insensitivity, invasion of privacy and even racism abounded.

Eventually, in July 2010, Semenya was cleared to return to competition, but within a year she had to abide by new rules targeted at those with hyperandrogenism, whose bodies produced excessive levels of testosterone.

For Semenya, medication was necessary to suppress those levels, and her winning time from the 2009 final became a personal best she couldn’t beat. She was still a force though, winning silver in the 800m at London 2012 behind Russian athlete Mariya Savinova (a result now likely to be overturned, with the World Anti-Doping Agency having recommended Savinova be issued with a lifetime ban). For Semenya, after a two-year period blighted by injury, she moved to a new training base at Potchefstroom and soon began to recover her form.

Then, 12 months ago, the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand’s appeal to CAS resulted in the suspension of the IAAF rules on female athletes with hyperandrogenism, in order to gather further evidence. Semenya no longer had to take the testosterone-suppressing medication. At the Diamond League meeting in Monaco last month, she finally cracked her seven-year-old PB.

Last week, Donald McRae wrote a feature for The Guardian which referred to the tale as “complicated and tangled”. There were two additional indicators of that:  the need for an accompanying article titled “What is an intersex athlete?” and that the online comments on both articles were disabled.

For sports journalists and editors, Semenya’s story must be seen as part of a wider debate about intersex athletes. The term “intersex” is covered in the NUJ’s guidelines on LGBT reporting – but in sporting terms, those guidelines appear insufficient. In the category titled “Transgender”, the document reads: “The term transgender also covers intersex people. That is, individuals who naturally possess both male and female biological characteristics.”

To refer to Semenya as transgender rather than as intersex would not be accurate. The 25-year-old was born a woman and competes as a woman – her gender identity has never changed. Like Chand, she is known as an intersex athlete for reasons of eligibility verification related to hyperandrogenism. Developments in LGBTI rights and language have superseded the NUJ document (it was published 18 months ago).

Kate and Helen Richhardson-Walsh: why wouldn't a reporter seek to capture the emotions involved in a married couple competing for the same Olympic team?
Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh: why wouldn’t a reporter seek to capture the emotions and human interest in a married couple competing for the same Olympic team?

And what of trans competitors in Rio? A Mail on Sunday article last month claimed that two British athletes were set to become “the world’s first transgender Olympians” – their selection was not yet confirmed at that time, but both were expected to become part of Team GB. The headline on the website article was originally “Rio Olympics to feature 2 British male transgender athletes who will compete as women” which was amended to “Transgender British athletes born male set to make Olympic history by competing in the games as women”. Here, the ambiguity of the terms initially used had resulted in the need for more accuracy. The phrase “male transgender” is applicable only to female to male transitions.

The article went on to quote Delia Johnston, an adviser to several sporting organisations on trans issues, who explained that both athletes “had transitioned years ago” but were anxious of the effects of exposure. Johnston said: “If they were in a gold or silver medal position, they would probably drop back because their fear of ridicule and total humiliation is so massive.” Again, the role the media is clearly a huge concern.

But whereas Daley’s fears about coming out in 2013 were not realised, the fears of transgender female athletes are more complex – fellow athletes, national sporting bodies and even political figures could react aggressively if they feel the changed IOC guidelines have worked against them.

Caution around the reporting of gender identity is, therefore, paramount for sports journalists covering the Olympics (comments moderators must be especially vigilant). But there will be “rainbow” moments to report on too: those lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes who are out in Rio are unlikely to discourage discussion of their sexuality, judging by their previous interviews on the subject.

Take British race walker Tom Bosworth, who told the Yorkshire Post: “I don’t see that as a bad thing, I kind of honour that. I want to do my best for the LGBT community.” When the Daily Mail asked what topping the Pink List in 2012 meant to her, Leeds’ Olympic boxing champion Nicola Adams replied: “I was really proud of that.”

When Kate Walsh, the hockey team’s captain, was asked by The Times to place her marriage to Helen Richardson in a sporting context, she said: “You have dreams, and sometimes those dreams are shattered. That brings you together.” When writing about elation or despair, why would you skip over such human interest?

The effects of accurate reporting on diversity in sport can be far reaching, and once every four years the Olympics provides a platform to tell stories about a wide range of heroes and heroines. Those batons of inspiration need to be passed on to readers young and old, newsroom colleagues and decision makers in sports bodies. It’s in our hands.

  • Jon Holmes is the Home Page Editor for Sky Sports Digital Media and can be found on Twitter at @jonboy79


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