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The Turbulent Life of Olympic Champion Matthew Mitcham

by Hans Hafkamp in Lifestyle & Fashion , 21 februari 2014

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Last December, president Obama announced that the American delegation to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi will consist of, among others, the tennis player Billie Jean King, and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow, both openly lesbian, and also of figure skater Brian Boitano, who won Olympic Gold in 1988. Shortly after Obama’s announcement, Boitano told the Associated Press he is gay. He admitted that he never wanted to give out such a statement, as he wanted his private life to remain private, and that his homosexuality is only part of his identity.

But he also realised that Obama’s delegation is making an important statement and he thought it would be important to be open about himself also. Obama has always resisted a boycott of the Games in Sochi and is of the opinion that “gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze” provide a much more important counterbalance to the hostile attitude of the Russian leaders.

During the 2012 Olympic Games in London, an entire website was dedicated to the activities of more or less openly gay athletes. The website showed that it seems easier for women to be open about their sexual preference then for men. But the important thing was that it was possible at all. A lot has changed since the Games that took place four years earlier in Beijing. In his autobiography “Twists and Turns” (Sydney: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), the Australian diver Matthew Mitcham writes: “I was the only openly gay male competitor. There were, I understand, ten out and proud lesbians at those Games... and one male. Me. [...] it seemed I was the only gay in the village. Statistically, of course, this is nonsense. There were around 11,000 athletes at Beijing, and if you use the well-accepted but extremely conservative yardstick that one in 10 people is gay, there were as many as 1089 athletes secretly flying the rainbow flag. I can understand perfectly why a gay man might not want to expose himself to a macho male athletic culture, inviting persecution and costing him sponsors, but, really, it’s all so sad.”

Even though Mitcham, who won Olympic Gold in Beijing, can see why athletes would have reservations about openly disclosing their sexual preference, his life story shows that those objections are mostly in the minds of these athletes. During his stay in Beijing, M’n’M - Mitcham’s nickname on - kept his colleague Greg Louganis’ autobiography “Breaking the Surface” (1995) on his bedside table for inspiration. Louganis, who won Olympic Gold in 1984 and 1988 on the men’s ten metre platform, and Mitcham have a lot in common. Not only are they both top level platform divers, but also gay. Louganis only came out of the closet to the general public after his Olympic glory days, whereas Mitcham did so before leaving for Beijing.

Out of the Closet

Mitcham’s coming out was more coincidental than an informed decision. On the eve prior to the Olympic Games, the “Sydney Morning Herald” published a series of profiles of athletes representing Australia, and Mitcham was also asked for an interview. Journalist Jessica Halloran had done her homework well, and they hit of off during the interview. As they were going through some standard questions, Halloran asked if he was living with anyone. And as Mitcham had decided to be honest about himself, he answered that he was living with a partner, and that his name was Lachlan. “Jessica’s eyes lit up. There being so few openly gay athletes, she had just struck journalistic gold. She said, ‘Tell me more about your partner.’ ‘We’ve been together for nearly two years,’ I said.”

Unlike many other journalists who would have published the scoop immediately, Halloran asked Mitcham whether he was certain he wanted to have this revelation in the article, and even gave the barely twenty-year-old athlete time to think it over. Mitcham then talked to Lachlan, who gave him his blessing, and some other friends, who gave him advice that varied. Afterwards, he gave Halloran permission to publish the whole story, to which she responded elated: “Matthew, I really think the Australian public will get behind you on this. They’ll support and respect you. Gay people have come out after the Games, but few have even done so before.” Halloran’s prediction came true, as Mitcham’s number of Facebook friends, for example, climbed from 11,000 to 20,000, and there wasn’t “a single shred of negativity from any quarter.”

For Mitcham’s close colleagues, this revelation did not come as a surprise. When he started training for the Olympics under Chava Sobrino in Sydney, he had been open about his sexual preference immediately. “I was sick of the lies,” he writes, “and I didn’t want to put myself in the same position in Sydney that I found myself in at Chandler [Aquatic Centre in Brisbane], where I never said that I was gay but never said that I wasn’t either, just endured the innuendoes of the others. I had felt like the odd one out, the ugly duckling, in Brisbane; but when I came to Sydney I was immediately made to feel welcome and was embraced by everybody. Absolutely everybody. Chava made sure that I knew my sexuality wasn’t an issue. Before, I had felt that it was, which is why I’d never really disclosed it to anybody.” Earlier in the book, about his training in Brisbane, he had observed with great self-knowledge that, although he could not get along with a number of boys, and that he suspected it was because they could see he was gay and felt uncomfortable about it, “In reality, rather than in the tortured daydreams I had back then, they may have been absolutely fine with me being gay. What may have made them uncomfortable was that I wasn’t forthright about it.”

Like a Spice Girl

At fifteen, Mitcham came out to his mother, after she had found gay porn on his computer. Of course he told her, like many other people have, that he was bisexual, but soon after he told her the truth. She responded by saying that she had known for years. This may not have come as a surprise, as Mitcham vividly remembered that by the age of seven or eight, he loved to wear his grandmother’s outfits. “I did myself up like a Spice Girl, but in a real parody-like way, with garishly blue eye shadow and really bright lipstick and heavy rouge circles on my cheeks.

There was no coordination in the outfit whatsoever: a hideous floral print boob tube with a white micro mini and an ugly brown wig. That white micro mini I found in Grandma’s sewing room just completely blew my mind.” Even though dressing up at that age, even if it has all the tell-tale signs of an extravagant drag show, is not an indication of someone’s sexual preference. When he was about six year old, Mitcham remembers, he was playing sex games in a shed with a twelve-year-old boy next door, and that he was extremely jealous when he sometime later saw the boy with another boy in that very same shed.

In “Breaking the Surface,” Louganis remembers that he felt attracted to other men at the age of seven or eight, just like so many other gays, but that he had no idea what those feelings meant, “I just assumed that’s how everyone felt.” Mitcham as well had been aware of his homosexuality from a young age, but soon came to the conclusion that society as a whole, and certainly the catholic nuns he was attending school with, “frowned on homosexuality and persecuted those who practised it, so until I was 11, I wore a rubber band around my wrist and flicked it every time I had a gay thought.”

Discovery of the Gay Scene

Mitcham’s youth had been, to put it mildly, turbulent. He was born on the 2nd of March, 1988, in Brisbane. His father had left his mother before Matthew was born, because the thought of fatherhood and the responsibilities that came with it, were too much for him. So Matthew was raised by a very young mother, who regularly was overburdened. In addition to this, she was clinically depressed, something which was only diagnosed at a later stage. These factors sometimes made her snap, and she yelled at or hit little Matthew at times. In “Twists and Turns,” Mitcham confesses: “while I never, ever for a moment stopped loving her, I was terrified of her. I always felt I was going to get in trouble, no matter what I did.”

Matthew was partly raised by his grandparents, and lived with them for some years during his childhood. And because he could not connect to boys his own age, Matthew spent a lot of time by himself, often in the bathroom because he could read there in peace. During his childhood, animals were his best friends.

Despite of her outbursts and the tense relationship with his mother, on the whole their relationship was good. And when Matthew started to go out in the gay scene as a minor, his mother even accompanied him at times. He started visiting gay bars at the tender age of fourteen, four years under the legal age. Because of his training, he did look somewhat older than fourteen, but, in his own opinion, “not eighteen.” Liquor laws were not strictly enforced in Brisbane, “and as often as not, I brazenly breezed by the doorman without a question being asked,” Mitcham says. He continues: “Just in case, I kept a fake ID handy, or sometimes I borrowed the ID of a friend who resembled me.” He was caught only once, and that fizzled out.

Cutting Himself

At a certain point he was also diagnosed clinically depressed, just like his mother. This manifested itself in symptoms such as strong feelings of self-doubt, despair, anger and in insomnia. Because of these psychological problems he started cutting himself in his wrists, echoing a female friend that was also depressed. The first time was during a junior national diving competition at age fourteen, after being enraged by something his then trainer, Hui Tong, had said. The relationship with this Chinese trainer, who had represented his country as a platform diver at the highest level, had been problematic from the start. The reason for this being that he treated the divers, as did the other Chines trainers Mitcham had experienced in the past, as machines. “I believe that because there are so many athletes in China,” Mitcham writes, “the powers that be feel they can afford to treat them like machines because they know if one athlete breaks there is another just as good ready to step up and take his or her place. It’s survival of the fittest.” Some Australian divers would undergo this ruthless regime without protest, but Mitcham wasn’t one of them, and rebelled: “I soon found myself the bad boy of the squad. I was unhappy, and that unhappiness manifested itself in injuries.” Some of his injuries were because of his training: “There was never a time in those years when [...] I wasn’t carrying an injury, be it stress fractures in my back, muscle and joint pains, or ganglions in both wrists. [...] Stress fractures are common across the whole sport, perhaps because divers train intensely during the teenage years, when their bodies are still growing.”

Because ignoring pain, discipline and self-sacrifice are part of a top athlete’s life, some trainers think they should act as tyrants to counteract these negative aspects. Someone like Mitcham responded to this by inflicting more pain to himself to handle the feelings of desperation this treatment evoked: “I lashed out at [Hui] by lashing out at myself. I was in the shower and there in the stall was a Gillette safety razor. As the water coursed down on me from the shower head, I cracked the razor apart with a can of Lynx deodorant and took out the blade and swung, literally swung, at my arm with it, making cross hatch cuts up and down my arm. I was in a frenzy and don’t remember it hurting while I was doing it. I lost a fair amount of blood down that sink-hole. It reminded me of the shower scene in ‘Psycho.’ [...] I believe that cutting myself, summoning up the courage to sink the blade into my skin and feeling the sting and waiting for the blood to rise and gush, was a cry for someone to help me end my sadness and anger.”

The Allurement of Drugs

This would not be the only serious case of self-mutilation; others would follow. Cutting himself was not the only way out for Mitcham’s misery. Another way out was the use of stimulants, which were available in abundance in the night-life. “I threw myself in the excitement, the danger, the thumping music, the drinking. I made friends quickly, and I met boys. I danced till daylight. I didn’t realise at first that most of the others who were dancing with me at 5am were on ecstasy and speed. I thought everyone had as much natural energy as me. So many people offered me drugs, and before too long I was doing drugs too. I smoked pot regularly and dipped into other drugs. I tried LSD when I was 16, maybe 17. I was in a club, and next day I had no memory of big patches of that night. That didn’t stop me taking LSD again. I never felt remorseful after a big night when I awoke with a hangover and no memory. After years in a diving straitjacket, partying was a thrill. In clubs, I felt comfortable.”

Despite of his drugs splurging and binge drinking, Mitcham kept control to a certain extent: “At 16, 17 and 18, I had a number of boyfriends and casual sexual partners. I had a rule that I never broke: Never go home with someone I’d just met at a club when I was vulnerable and danger-prone - that is, when my thinking was impaired by drinking or drugs or I had just got carried away with the partying.” He also emphasises that he never took performance enhancing drugs, but only recreational ones. He also knew how long they would stay in his body, and tuned his usage “according to when I would be likely to be drug-tested at diving events.”

Mitcham regularly wondered whether his depressions may have been caused by becoming aware of his sexual orientation, but rejects the idea: “I never really had a real problem with being gay. But knowing that being straight is the default sexuality in our society, because heterosexual relationships are the foundation of marriage and parenthood, and that gay men and women are often discriminated against, I did wonder for a bit if I could save myself all this strife and change my sexuality. [...] It wasn’t until I was 18, when I fell in love, that I accepted once and for all that I was gay by nature and preference. Anyone close to me had known for yonks.”

The Man of his Life

The man Mitcham fell in love with was Lachlan Fletcher. Fletcher was ten years older and had lost his partner Christian to cancer two years earlier. Mitcham and Fletcher had met in the early morning after a night of clubbing in Sydney. The contact was made by a friend of the shy Lachlan, who approached Mitcham at a bus stop. He was sitting there because he was supposed to resume his training in Brisbane the next day. The man pointed out Lachlan and said: “He’s having a party at his place when the club closes. He wants you to come along.” After casting a glance at Lachlan, Mitcham quickly said yes. Mitcham’s training had to be postponed, because the men hit it off, and Mitcham, who had painted his hair emo-black at the time, stayed at Lachlan’s place for a week. On one of their mornings in bed during this first week, Lachlan told him: “My eyes were drawn to you, as if you were dancing in your own personal spotlight, like in the movies. [...] What made you stand out for me was that you looked so happy and relaxed, just floating around, while everyone else was so intense and wearing their attitude.”

Lachlan would soon find out that this happy exterior had a dark side, but this did not scare him off. He helped Mitcham to face his demons and cope with them. “One day [...] I took a large amount of LSD and went into a massive and cathartic trip. I spend eight hours in the darkened bedroom, Lachlan beside me, regressing through my life and re-experiencing all the hurt. I wept and shook and moaned as it all rushed out. I sounded like a wounded animal in deep pain and shock. [...] For all those long hours, Lachlan held me close and told me everything was going to be OK. [...] Unloading to Lachlan during my LSD haze was more beneficial than all the therapy and medicating and seeking oblivion through drugs and alcohol and self-harm. Depression is the suppression of feelings, and I had stirred up the sediment of my subconscious and brought all this stuff to the surface.”

Back on Track

Shortly before this cathartic night, Mitcham had stopped as a diver because he could no longer handle the pressure. Less than six months later, his current trainer Chava Sobrino asked him if he wanted to train with him in Sydney. Mitcham was interested in this proposal. “The excitement I felt at the prospect of diving again made me realise, without a doubt, that I had unfinished business with the sport.” After Mitcham’s positive response, it took Sobrino and some other advocates some effort to convince the Australian diving officials to readmit him to the national training programme: “Matthew Mitcham is trouble. If he ever makes it back on track we’ll call it a miracle,” one of them said. In the end, things worked out for Mitcham, and fifteen months later, this official and the rest of the world were witness to the miracle of Mitcham’s golden medal in Beijing, putting a stop to China’s absolute sway in the Olympic diving arena that year. Everyone congratulated him, and, Mitcham reveals, “One German diver - straight, I hasten to add - came up close and whispered that he owed me a blowjob, which cracked me up. You can see me laughing on the video.” Mitcham was the first Australian to win Olympic gold as a platform diver since Dick Eve’s victory in 1924.

Mitcham’s victory was not only celebrated in Australia. A lot of gat people were very happy with a victory by a gay athlete who was so out and proud. Jim Buzinski put these feelings into words on “Matthew Mitcham made me cry. [...] By winning the gold medal in the men’s 10 metre platform diving, Mitcham struck a golden blow for gay people everywhere who’ve been told they’re flawed, or not good enough, especially in the athletic arena. For all the gay men who have been called weak, sissies, pansies, too emotional, not tough enough to compete in sports, that final dive was for you.”

Matt’s autobiography “Twists and Turns,” in which he also writes extensively about his sporting activities of course, is a remarkable book. And not only because he declares his love for Lady Gaga. It rarely happens that a young gay man tells about his life’s highs and lows with such candour and so shortly after the events. We can only hope that other gay athletes will follow suit, and be open about their sexual orientation during the Winter Olympics. By doing so, they would thumb their noses at macho Putin and his lot, especially if they were to kiss their partner after winning a bronze, silver or golden medal, just like Mitcham did in 2008. Besides on the American network NBC, this kiss was aired all over the world with the announcement that Mitcham, besides being an Olympic champion, is also gay.

Matthew Mitcham, Twists and Turns, Sydney: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012, paperback, 310 blz., ISBN 9780732294892



In the New Issue of Gay News, 327, November 2018

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