Monday, 21 December 2009

Why Gareth Thomas is showing sport the way forward

Sitting in his cottage in the village of St Brides Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, Gareth Thomas was described by the man to whom he was giving an interview as ‘a man finally at peace with himself’. In the years and months before this interview, the former Wales and Lions captain had looked out over the cliffs near his home and wondered whether it would be easier to end all of his worries there and then. The day after revealing his sexuality to the world, the man universally known as ‘Alfie’ is joking about a conversation with Martyn Williams in which he pleaded with his teammate to respond to any questions about his announcement with a gag about the pink shirts worn by the Blues away from home. The positive reaction to the announcement has seen a weight lifted off Thomas’ shoulders. Furthermore, the bravery of his declaration could finally see the chains of prejudice removed from professional sport.

When you read Thomas’ own account of his life, it isn’t difficult to understand the decisions that he has made. Having known from the age of 16 that he was gay, Thomas chose to hide his sexuality to allow himself to fulfil his potential on the rugby field. 100 Wales caps and 41 Test tries later, it would be foolish to suggest that the Blues full-back has had anything less than an outstanding career. The sadness is that he felt he could not have reached this level of achievement with his sexuality in the public eye. The idea that a sportsman could see his talent overlooked due to his sexuality is a worrying one. Whatever his social life off the pitch involved, Thomas was the model professional on it. We will never know whether the prejudice that he feared would have become a reality but thankfully, by the time that he revealed his secret to Scott Johnson in 2006 having broken down in the changing rooms of the Millennium Stadium following a match, Thomas found nothing but support. He recalls how the first time he saw close friends Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams after Johnson had told them, they “didn’t even blink” at the news. The doubts as to whether the reaction within rugby would have been the same at the beginning of his career are full justification of Thomas’ timing. Although there should be a sense of shame that the sporting world wouldn’t accept a gay man as a professional athlete in the early days of his career, the reaction in 2009 has been overwhelmingly in favour of Thomas from both within the game and from those who watch it.

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It was not only rugby that persuaded Thomas to keep his sexuality private. His marriage was also a point of confusion. Although Thomas found ways to disguise his true feelings, his marriage was not an act. He describes his ex-partner as “the nicest, most caring, understanding, prettiest girl I had ever met”. Thomas doesn’t deny that his feelings for Jemma were strong; they were simply contrary to everything that he knew about himself. Despite his efforts to ignore his instincts, the marriage broke down and left Thomas in a state of emotional turmoil. It was at this point that he confided in Johnson and eventually, his close friends. Clearly, the situation should never have been allowed to reach such a low point. However, his decision to go public highlights a huge change in the history of sport.

Never before has a professional sportsman who is still competing at the highest level announced that he is gay. When looking at a list of men involved with sport who have declared that they are gay (including international rugby referee Nigel Owens) on internet site Wikipedia, there are only 60 names present. Although Owens declared his sexuality in 2007 and continues to referee at the highest level, none of the 58 remaining names ‘came out’ before retiring from actual participation in their sport. One of the obvious observations about this list is the lack of names on it. It would suggest that in the history of sport, only 60 men have been gay. Such a statement is undeniably inaccurate and highlights the taboo that has surrounded homosexuality and sport. In the past, people have been afraid to reveal their sexuality amid fears of the bias and intolerance that Thomas highlighted. The reaction to Thomas’ announcement in 2009 can have a significant effect upon the future of homosexuality in sport.

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Gareth Thomas should never have been driven to a point where he considered suicide in his battle to reveal his sexuality. However, his decision to go public in the manner that he has can be beneficial to all of those involved in sport. If the reaction of Martyn Williams and Stephen Jones showed that those in the Welsh changing room had no problems with Thomas’ sexuality, the reaction in the media and amongst sport fans has demonstrated that there is no longer a need to make homosexuality a delicate issue within sport. His sexuality has not only been accepted but welcomed. In his interviews following the announcement Thomas made a simple statement to the world. He said “I don't want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player first and foremost". Whatever a player’s sexuality, his ability to perform will not be hindered in any way. Throughout his career, Thomas has made this clear time and time again.

We should not hide the fact that homosexuality is still an issue in sport. The reaction to announcements such as this is not perfect. There will always be somebody who doesn’t possess the capability to see beyond weak stereotypes. There will always be somebody who makes a joke in poor taste at a match. The battle for equality in sport in far from over. However, if Thomas’ decision can help one more sportsman to go public, the momentum will begin to shift in the right direction. To conclude his interviews, Thomas used the following line. "I'd love for it, in 10 years' time, not to even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: 'So what?'" Do you know what Alfie? You are far from alone in that wish.

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