Over the last two decades, LGBTQ+ rights and representation in public life have seen remarkable improvement. In the United States, the realm of sports, from collegiate and professional athletics, has certainly lagged. For instance, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, but he got no play time. Luke Prokop, a Nashville Predators draft pick currently working his way up to the majors, broke similar ground just last month. LGBTQIA+ participation in the Olympics demonstrates that even worldwide the trend or representation of openly LGBTQ+ athletes is recent but accelerating rapidly.
In 1928, Renée Sintenis and Otto Peltzer became the first known members of the LGBTQIA+ community, taking part in the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928. Sintenis took bronze, making her the first LGBTQIA+ medalist. German middle-distance runner Peltzer was imprisoned by the Nazis because of his homosexuality in the 1940s.
Despite this early representation, by 1980 only one was represented, though in outlying years as many as eight had participated. 1992 was the last year summer and winter were combined and saw a record-breaking 17 LGBTQ+ participants, and since then the growth has been steady, especially in the summer games: 28 in 1996, 44 in 2000, 33 in 2004, 51 in 2008, 64 in 2012, and 75 in 2016. So, from Peltzer and Sintenis to the 2018 games, around 230 LGBTQ+ athletes have competed
The 2020 summer games in Tokyo were delayed until this summer. Tokyo 2021 will have 162+ out athletes competing—an incredible 116% increase of out LGBTQ+ athletes compared to the Rio 2016 games’ 75 LGBTQIA+ athletes competing, and nearly as many as all the prior games combined!
Research into the history of the games reveals a number of interesting facts:
- USA, Canada and the Netherlands rank top 3 for the countries with the most LGBTQIA+ athletes
- There have been no openly out LGBTQIA+ athletes representing Japan in the past or upcoming games
- LGBTQIA+ athletes have won 93 gold, 75 silver and 61 bronze medals to date (prior to Tokyo)
When it comes to the nation with the most LGBTQIA+ athletes who have competed at the Olympic Games, the US is out in front with 47 and counting. Neighboring Canada is second with 33. The third is the top European country—the Netherlands. Germany is fourth.
And which LGBTQ+ athletes have the most medals (prior to 2021)? Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst has five Gold, five Silver and a Bronze, earned across the last four Winter Games. She is the most successful LGBTQIA+ Olympian of all time. Swimmer Ian Thorpe is second with nine (five gold), and gymnast Karin Buttner-Janz is third with seven (two gold).
The summer Olympics almost always have higher representation—which may be explained by the team sports. Soccer has the highest LGBTQ+ representation, followed closely by track & field events and swimming.
Prior to Tokyo, no openly trans athletes had competed at the Olympic Games. That is about to change, however, as New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to make history when she becomes the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Summer Games. There have also been at least three known athletes who came out as trans following their involvement in the Olympics: Caitlyn Jenner, Rebecca Quinn, and Balian Buschbaum.
The 2021 Tokyo Summer Games will mark a dramatic shift in the numbers, nearly doubling the historic numbers and marking what may be a new era of LGBTQ+ representation.