Out and Proud at the Rio Olympics


A record number of out LGBTI athletes are participating at this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: @AminiFonua (via Twitter).

The fundamental principle of Olympism states that “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.”

This principle is particularly true for this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with the participation of #TeamRefugees as well as a record number of out lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) athletes. The Rio Olympics are actively promoting positive visibility, human dignity and fair representation in sports.

Participation in sport fosters inclusion while promoting health and well-being. Sporting events and athletics can also serve as a platform for communication, education and social mobilization. The Olympics, representing the pinnacle of athletic and sporting achievement, are therefore a prime arena for showcasing true equality and inclusion.

It makes me proud that at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) we are committed to inclusive development. Inclusive sport participation is essential if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 3 on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, SDG 5 on gender equality and SDG 16 on promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

Olympians represent the glorious few athletes with the opportunity, dedication and endurance to gain entry to this internationally recognized arena of outstanding athleticism. Olympians are driven by an obsession with their physical craft and have trained for years to be where they are. And many of these Olympians…are LGBTI.

In fact, at least 49 publicly out LGBTI athletes are competing at the Rio Games.

Almost the entire LGBTI acronym is represented, including gay swimmer Amini Fonua, who was flag bearer for Tonga in the 2012 Olympics and represented Tonga this year in the men’s 100m breaststroke.  

Bisexual boxer Nicola Adams of Great Britain became the first out LGBTI person to win gold in boxing during the London 2012 games and is seeking to defend her title in the women’s fly weight class in Rio.

Intersex sprinter Dutee Chand competed for India after spearheading a case against the International Association of Athletics Federations that led the Court of Arbitration in Sport to suspend regulations that required female intersex athletes to take measures to artificially reduce their testosterone levels.

And while this year no out trans athletes are competing, new regulations mean that trans men and women are allowed to take part without having gender affirming surgery, though women will need testosterone levels below a certain level for at least a year to qualify.

The visibility and openness of LGBTI athletes at the Olympics represents a growing dialogue on LGBTI issues and human rights globally. The open and inclusive nature of the Olympics is mirrored in the efforts of the Being LGBTI in Asia programme that I work for as an LGBTI and Human Rights Project Officer. The programme aims to address inequality, violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and promote universal access to health and social services. 

The Olympics were founded on the premise that all sports are for all people and that all sports must be treated on the basis of equality. This spirit underpins the Rio Games and echoes UNDP’s vision of inclusive development for all. And it is important.

LGBTI visibility in the most prestigious sporting event in the world is vital if young LGBTI people are to feel confident and included in the sporting environment. For far too long sports and athleticism have been seen as uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe environments for LGBTI persons. LGBTI young people are more likely than their peers to avoid sports activities and associated environments such as locker rooms and gyms.

By competing openly, these athletes provide a vision of excellence and accessibility for other LGBTI athletes to emulate. This open participation is a visible triumph that upholds the original ideals of the Olympic Games as a place for equality and integrity in sport. In the immortal words of the Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.”

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