Olympian wants to help tackle homophobia in sport ahead of pride parade

As Calgary's Pride Festival continues to build towards Sunday's parade, one local athlete is pushing to get homophobia out of the sporting world.

Olympic luger John Fennell announced he was gay shortly after competing at the Sochi Olympics

In his first taste of the Olympics, John Fennell felt isolated and alone following the controversy over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Sochi last February. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

As Calgary's Pride Festival continues to build towards Sunday's parade, one local athlete is pushing to get homophobia out of the sporting world.

Olympic luger John Fennell participated in a panel discussion on homophobia in sport in Calgary Friday night.

Fennell announced he was gay shortly after competing at the Sochi Olympics this winter. He kept it a secret during the Games, and said it was suffocating.

"It was actually really terrifying to go through that," he said. "It was one of the most stressful things I've done."

He says in the run-up to the Olympics he became very anxious and that negatively impacted his performance.

"I was in a World Cup in Latvia and I was almost in hysterics and I said, 'How can I be brave enough to go down this mountain if I can't be brave enough to be who I am,'" he said.

Although it shook him to the core, Fennell says there was one positive thing. He says it made him address the issue, reach out for help and gather support.

"Whether I knew it or not, it was going to be the most healthiest choice I could make," he said.

Olympian John Fennell says he has grown closer with his mom after coming out this spring. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

"If anything it's allowed for a more open and more personal connection between my mother and I, which is something that previously wasn't there. I relied on my brother heavily before I told anyone else in my family about this, so it's certainly strengthened our relationship as well. It's really only brought positives."

Lynne Fennell said when her son revealed his secret it was a bit of a shock.

"Shock just because I have lived with and around him for a long time," she said.

"The other thing is I felt a tremendous amount of pride because of his bravery and his courage and his accountability."

He says competing in Russia was difficult due to the homophobic attitudes of many in that country, but the reaction to his announcement here at home has been great.

"I had almost entirely positive reactions from everyone," he said. "It was really healthy and helped me out a lot." 

Fennell says his sport is driven by being confident and brave, so he hopes to see that in his competition next year. He is also looking forward to taking part in his first Calgary Pride celebration and will be joined by his teammates.

Out on the field

Another gay athlete who recently came out is college baseball player Chandler Whitney. He also took part in the panel cal​led Tackling Homophobia in Sports.

The discussion examined the challenges connected to overcoming homophobia in sports and the role human rights should play at major international sporting events.

Whitney can relate to the fear that coming out can cause an athlete. 

"I'm in Walla Walla, there's not a lot of open-mindedness on the surface," Whitney told outsports.com.

But when he came out to his Walla Walla Community College baseball team he found complete acceptance.

It's been a big year of firsts for gay athletes.

NBA player Jason Collins became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues this winter. Michael Sam was also the first openly gay football player to be drafted in the NFL.

The announcements generated a variety of reactions, and some athletes didn't take it that well.

Calgary Stampeders receiver Maurice Price had to apologize for tweets he sent out after Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.

The tweets were criticized by teammate Jon Cornish, the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2014, because his mom is married to a woman.

Those type of divides are exactly what Friday's panel was looking to address.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.