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'You don't get to cheat it': Mark Tewksbury on LGBTQ issues in sport

While acknowledging how far LGBTQ issues in sport have progressed, Mark Tewksbury says a lot more needs to happen — especially when it comes to trans athletes and representation in pro sport.

Olympic champ reflects on social progress 20 years after publicly coming out

Canada's Mark Tewksbury came out privately to a trusted coach at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, something he says made a difference while swimming to gold in the 100-metre backstroke. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

Canadian Olympic champion Mark Tewksbury has zero doubts that he would have competed as an out athlete if he swam at the Rio 2016 Games instead of Barcelona in 1992.

"I don't think of gay as one of my descriptors anymore," Tewksbury told CBC Sports on the 20th anniversary of his public coming out.

"But of course it is."

A lot has happened since the 100-metre backstroke gold medallist came out in 1998, making him Canada's first openly gay Olympic athlete. And while he acknowledges how far LGBTQ issues in sport have come, the sport industry leader maintains a lot more needs to happen.

"Well for sure there's still a stigma there's no gay hockey players because there haven't been any that have ever come out from the NHL," Tewksbury said. "Not even in retirement.

"It says to me it's ridiculous. It says to me there's still a ways to go."

Watch Mark Tewksbury explain how the LGBTQ athlete experience has changed in two decades

Canadian Mark Tewksbury won 100m backstroke gold at Barcelona 1992. It wasn't until 1998 that he came out publicly, making him Canada's first openly gay Olympic athlete. Tewksbury reflects with Jacqueline Doorey. 4:09

Full-circle in Sochi

In the last 20 years of high performance sport, governing bodies have made a concerted effort to better protect their athletes — much of it inspired by Russia's anti-gay laws that clouded the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

That same year, the International Olympic Committee revised its anti-discrimination policies to include sexual orientation, as did the Canadian Olympic Committee. The COC also partnered with anti-homophobia groups, created media campaigns pushing inclusively and have since created LGBTQ spaces at various Games as well as actively participated in Pride celebrations.

It's a far cry from the environment Tewksbury had during his time on Team Canada — and something he's proud to see. The Toronto-based Tewksbury had a full-circle experience in Sochi which further proved to him just how much things are changing.

Tewksbury came out privately to a trusted coach at the Barcelona Games, which he said made all the difference in his personal integrity and power while competing. Twenty-two years later, Tewksbury was able to be that confidant for luge athlete John Fennell, who had not yet come out publicly but needed the support Tewksbury was looking for all those Games ago.

"What's cool is when history happens in such little, tiny, incremental steps, sometimes you don't see it and it feels useless and hopeless," he said. "But when you have enough time — like 20 years — the steps start to add up and make some sense.

"By virtue of John Fennell having another gay athlete he could reach out to, which was me, I didn't have that; I had a coach.

"So it moved itself forward."

Tewksbury credits Russia's anti-gay laws as the catalyst that made so many of these conversations happen. 

"That became the point where people said a: we have to protect our athletes," Tewksbury said. "And for athletes to declare they are members to the LGBT community and to say it is important that we're seen because of what's been happening."

What's next?

The celebration and success of athletes like figure skaters Eric Radford and Adam Rippon, as well as freestyle skier Gus Kentworthy show how far society has come. It's a stark contrast to the experiences of Olympic champions like diver Greg Louganis in the late 1970s and 1980s and swimmer Ian Thorpe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who felt the need to keep their sexuality under wraps to maintain their careers.

But there are still pressing issues to address in 2018, with one of the major stigmas being a lack of LGBT representation in pro sport. 

Watch Mark Tewsbury explain what stigmas still exists in sport:

Mark Tewksbury has learned a lot in his 20 years as an open athlete, and he opens up about what more needs to be done. 4:39

"I think people are afraid of losing things: losing fans, losing sponsorships, losing television revenue... I don't know what the loss is," said Tewksbury. "I just think it's a myth, we can get past it, it can be a non-issue."

Tewksbury also sees transgender athlete integration as something that will be very difficult to overcome, especially in sport where things are organized in such binary terms. He admits there's no easy solution. 

'Change happens from pressure on more than one side," Tewksbury said. "So I think international leadership still needs to pay attention to this issue and create the environment.

"But you can't just go from issue to non-issue. You have to do the work." 

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