On Aug. 23, 2008, Matthew Mitcham stunned the diving world when he recorded a perfect dive on the men's 10-meter platform at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, beating the heavily favored Chinese divers. When the event was shown on NBC in the Eastern Time Zone, the Outsports server crashed from heavy traffic. It crashed again three hours later when his dives were shown in the Pacific Time Zone.
Our server crashed because people were Googling Mitcham like crazy and our story about his coming out as gay was at the top of web searches. For many, it was the first they heard about Mitcham being openly gay since NBC ignored that angle and did not show his boyfriend cheering in the stands in Beijing. His gold medal performance instantly made Mitcham a hero, showing it was possible for an openly gay athlete to perform at an elite level and thrive. And Mitcham embraced the attention, being an effective spokesman and role model.
Four years later, things are a different, but in a positive way. In London, it's Mitcham diving and not his sexual orientation that is the focus. He has built a template for how someone should come out.
In reading coverage of Mitcham in the lead-up to competing Friday in London, I was struck by how his sexuality is often not mentioned - he is Matthew Mitcham, diver, not Matthew Mitcham, gay diver. That's progress.
It's not as if Mitcham tries to hide who he is. He is a spokesman for gay marriage in Australia, posing for an "I Do" campaign in a magazine. He was the grand marshal of Sydney's famous gay Mardi Gras parade. In 2010, he was named a Gay Games ambassador and did more than just lend his name. He came to Cologne, Germany, and participated in the Opening Ceremonies and hung out with other athletes; he was utterly charming and everyone wanted their picture taken with him and he happily obliged.
He bills his popular Twitter feed thusly: "Yes, I'm that gay, 2008-Olympic-gold-medal-winning diver dude. And yes, bro, I am quite sick." One Twitter image shows him in a T-shirt that reads: "Thank you Mom and Dad for making me the
way GAY I am."
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald this spring, Mitcham was clear that he does not mind be a spokesman for gay issues:
"Ideally I would like one day for sexuality to be as unimportant and uninteresting as hair color, or eye color or even just gender in general. One day it will get to that.
"But until it is easy for sports people to come out without fear of persecution or fear of lost sponsorship income and stuff like that, or fear of being comfortable in the team environment, I don't mind attention being brought to my sexuality in the hope that it might make other people feel more comfortable...in being comfortable enough about who they are in their sporting environment."
But the media have moved on from him simply as a human interest story. Outsports mentions that he is gay when and appropriate but also because new readers might wonder why we're writing about him rather than other divers. In the sports coverage of Olympic diving, there are stories about Mitcham battling a painful abdominal injury and his intense training regimen to recover; how he loves performing since he sees himself as a "bit of a show pony"; and how he doesn't fear the Chinese divers since he's beaten them before.
In none of those stories was Mitcham's being gay mentioned, and for good reason - that has nothing to do with him diving. When it was mentioned in a suitable vein was in a terrific AP interview in Australia that focused on Mitcham the athlete and the person. It was a classic sports profile, one we've seen thousands of times with straight athletes, except this time the athlete was gay.
NBC also -- finally -- got into the act, by devoting a well-done three-minute segment in prime time during Friday's qualifying to tell Mitcham's story and the impact his coming out has had. This is quite a contrast from 2008 when the network ignored the gay angle, even after Mitcham's stunning gold medal performance.
At Australia's team announcement in June, Mitcham was conscious of the occasion and wanted to focus only on being a member of the squad. He didn't want to get too deep into discussions about being a role model for gay athletes, or any issues outside of diving. The only outward sign of his out-of-the-pool personality was a small "Federation of Gay Games" stickpin stuck over his left -side pocket.
To get a better insight into Mitcham as a person, go to Facebook, where he keeps friends and fans up-to-date and is a vocal campaigner for various causes.
Mitcham is showing how any athlete can navigate the coming-out process. He came out in May 2008, four months before competing, and it was a big story, especially in Australia. It has now pretty much died down and that's a good thing. Mitcham has shown other athletes it is possible to be openly gay without that defining you.