Thursday, 28 August 2008

Golden Boy

Australian diver Matthew Mitcham won gold in the men's 10m platform event at the Beijing Olympics.

Matthew Mitcham
July 2, 2008

In August, diver Matthew Mitcham will become the first openly-gay Australian to compete in an Olympic Games.

In many ways, Matthew Mitcham is just your regular 20-year-old gay guy.

He lives in inner Sydney, he has a boyfriend, his favourite club is Arq. He loves to watch The Simpsons, Futurama and Queer As Folk. His favourite music is by The Presets, Kate Miller-Heidke and Missy Higgins.

But Matthew Mitcham is not your regular 20-year-old gay guy.

Not only is he an elite member of Australia’s Olympic diving team, but last month he became headline news around the world.

The reason? For being gay.

A casual remark to a journalist during an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald led to a flurry of international publicity. The Herald put Mitcham on its front page. In Britain, national daily newspaper The Independent carried an article under the headline ‘Gay diver breaks Australian sporting taboo’.

Respected British daily The Guardian, rarely interested in Antipodean affairs, chimed in with an opinion piece asserting that while “Australia is an enlightened place these days, Australian sport, on the other hand, is not.” Mitcham had committed “a brave act indeed by coming out”, it said.

But the person at the centre of it all sees things differently.

Speaking to SX during a break from training at the Sydney Aquatic Centre in Homebush, Matthew Mitcham is nonplussed by all the fuss.

“It’s not really a big deal,” he says. “It’s not like I’m a different person. It’s not like I was straight before. So nothing really has changed.”

In fact, Mitcham doesn’t even agree that he ‘came out’ last month.

“I came out years ago. All that happened recently was that I was doing an interview with the Herald and there was a pretty innocuous question, ‘Who do I live with?’ and I just said ‘my partner Lachlan’. And the journalist was really excited – she thought it was absolutely wonderful!”

While Mitcham, who came out to friends and family at age fourteen (Mum’s reaction: “Well, duh!”), doesn’t see his sexuality a big deal, he’s not na├»ve about his position as Australia’s highest-profile out gay sportsman. He’s aware that other people do see it as “a big deal” and he’s happy to wear the mantle of ‘role model’ for young gay guys.

“Being in my position, it’s inevitable,” he concedes. “There’s not really much choice. If someone looks up to you, then you’re a role model. And I’m happy with that. I just hope I do a good job – I’m not perfect!”

He certainly bears the markings of a good gay role model: he’s successful, attractive and he’s not shy about speaking up on queer issues. When asked for his view on same-sex marriage, for instance, he has no compunction slamming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

“I’m not happy with Kevin Rudd,” he says, bluntly. “Kevin Rudd’s opinion of marriage as something that’s only between a man and a woman is quite narrow-minded. During the election campaign he was all about appearing young and cool, but his views on gay marriage make him look quite old-fashioned.”

Similarly, Mitcham doesn’t hold back when quizzed about criticism of his ‘coming out’. When the Herald story was initially published, this journalist overheard two women on a train explaining to each other’s satisfaction why it was ‘ridiculous’. “Why don’t heterosexuals come out as straight?” harrumphed one. “They’re just obsessed with their sexuality,” sneered the other. I ask Mitcham for his response to this line of thinking.

“That’s a really uneducated, unworldly view,” he replies. “And you know what? Straight people talk about their sexuality all the time. They talk about the opposite sex, they talk about their wives, their husbands, their marriage. Those are all heterosexual discourses, and they do talk about them all the time. So those ladies didn’t think their comments through very well.”

But of course, gay politics is not Mitcham’s primary focus right now. He’s under a punishing training schedule ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games, where he hopes to bring back gold for Australia in the ten-metre platform and three-metre springboard events.

He’s already won gold this year at the 2008 Diving Grand Prix in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“All my energy is focused on Beijing right now,” says a tenacious Mitcham. “I’ve been diving since I was eleven, so it’s been nine years of work leading up to this.”

Whether he brings back the gold or not, something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more of Matthew Mitcham.

Source: Making a splash by Peter Hackney