Ten iconic Team LGBTQ+ moments from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Published by Jon Holmes on

From the letter ‘X’ to the ‘Queen of Tokyo’, from a trail-blazing trans triumph to Britain’s No 1 knitter, here’s our collection of quality queer-friendly memories that will linger on long after the Olympic flame has been extinguished in Japan…

By Jon Holmes

It’s a 12-hour flight and nearly 6,000 miles from London to Tokyo but watching at home, I still felt incredibly connected to these Olympics.

Much of that was down to the circumstances. It seemed for so long that Covid-19 might take Tokyo 2020 off the calendar completely, especially as the infection rate rose in Japan as the rescheduled Games got closer.

With so many athletes missing out due to devastating personal circumstances, and with no fans in attendance at venues, this felt like a fragile sporting event – Simone Biles’ mental health being arguably its biggest story reminded us of that vulnerability.

Biles showed her fortitude, and there was also great courage to be found among the out LGBTQ+ athletes – 182 of them at the last count, as recorded by our friends at Outsports who had an outstanding Games, keeping us well informed throughout whether it was news about world records being smashed or stories reflecting queer representation from around the world.

One statistic that really grabs you – if ‘Team LGBTQ+’ were a country, they would have finished seventh in the medal table!

So with a thank you to all who entertained, thrilled or inspired us at Tokyo 2020 – and not just the medal winners – here’s a rundown of 10 stand-out memories that had lesbian, gay, bi, trans and non-binary people celebrating on behalf of all our communities…

Games president calls for LGBTQ+ legacy for Japan on Pride House visit

Seiko Hashimoto had only been in the role of Tokyo 2020 President for a couple of months when she visited Pride House in the city in April 2021, her predecessor Yoshiro Mori having quit over sexist comments he made. Amid major frustrations for those working for greater LGBTQ+ inclusion in Japan – the country’s Parliament would eventually fail to introduce anti-discrimination legislation in time for the Games – Hashimoto nonetheless embraced the challenge and stated that it was among the responsibilities of the Organising Committee to campaign for change. Amid the many legacy issues for Tokyo, we must all hope that pressure is maintained on the Japanese government so that Hashimoto, her colleagues and Pride House itself can celebrate a victory for equality before too long.

Follow @PrideHouseTokyo on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook!

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto visited the Pride House Tokyo Legacy on April 27, 2021

Tokyo contact produces rainbow armband for GB hockey skipper

With couple Sarah Jones and Leah Wilkinson as team-mates, alongside Rio 2016 gold medallist Susannah Townsend, LGBTQ+ inclusion is woven into the fabric of the Great Britain hockey squad, which was skippered in Tokyo by Hollie Webb. Leading the way towards Olympic bronze, Webb wore a rainbow captain’s armband on her left leg, in a symbolic gesture that was also undertaken by Germany’s Nike Lorenz. Both had to get IOC approval to wear the Pride colours and for Webb, it was a race against time to secure an armband – eventually one was sourced in Tokyo itself via an acquaintance of myGwork‘s Pierre Gaubert. Elsewhere at the Games, Australia’s Sharni Williams wore rainbow headgear for her team’s rugby sevens campaign while Gabriela DeBues-Stafford came fifth for Canada in the 1500m final with her hair in rainbow colours.

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See skateboard and pin for Alana Smith’s pronouns – but some still slip up

As the first out non-binary athlete to compete in an individual discipline at the Olympics, the USA’s Alana Smith was breaking down barriers. With ‘they/them’ clearly written on their skateboard and sporting a pronouns badge to match, Smith tried to help out the commentators and reporters at the women’s street event but a few clearly hadn’t done their homework and managed to misgender them. In a moving Instagram post afterwards, they wrote: “Last night I thanked whoever it was out there that gave me the chance to not leave this world the night I laid in the middle of the road.” There’s a link in Smith’s bio to a global list of hotlines for those experiencing suicidal thoughts. Their participation was a lesson in the importance of listening and learning, and living “unapologetically”.

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A post shared by Alana Smith (@alanasmithskate)

‘That’s my girlfriend!’ – Italian archer gets video message, comes out

Casa Italia, the hospitality house at the Olympics for Italy’s athletes (who finished a superb 10th in the official Tokyo medal table), made sure archer Lucilla Boari would get a memorable reception for her historic bronze medal. Among the video messages they gathered in for Boari was one from another archer, Sanne de Laat, back home in the Netherlands. “I love you so much,” said De Laat. “I’m very proud of what you’ve done, and I can’t wait for you to come back. I’m waiting to give you a big hug.” Boari was visibly moved by the message and confirmed De Laat was her girlfriend – a casual way to publicly come out. Meanwhile, Poland’s Katarzyna Zillman thanked her girlfriend after taking silver in the quadruple sculls and said that previously when she’d mentioned her relationship in interviews, Polish journalists had left the information out of their published articles. Also from Poland, skeet shooter Aleksandra Jarmolinska wore a facemask with Pride rainbow colours at the Opening Ceremony and explained how she planned to wed her fiance after the Games – in a country other than her homeland, where sadly equal marriage is still not recognised.

Sanne de Laat surprises her girlfriend, bronze medal-winning archer Lucilla Boari

‘The Queen of Tokyo’: Superstar Rojas sets world record, lifts Venezuela

There were 20 world records broken at Tokyo 2020, according to the New York Times, but only one in women’s field athletics – and it had stood for 26 years. It was also the only WR smashed by an out LGBTQ+ athlete at these Games. Yulimar Rojas is already a superstar in Venezuela and was World Athletics Female Athlete of the Year in 2020 (she also won the equivalent Outsports award last year). Now she’s a household name in many more homes around the globe. With her towering 6ft 4in frame, the changing colour of her short hair, and her authenticity, it’s no surprise that she’s sporting royalty to her legions of admirers, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who crowned her the ‘Queen of Tokyo’ for her golden, record-breaking 15.67m achievement in Japan.

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A post shared by Yulimar Rojas? (@yulimarrojas45)

Daley gets gold and bronze medals and delivers powerful Pride messages

It’s the best part of eight years since Tom Daley shared his famous ‘Something I want to say…’ YouTube video with the world. That’s been viewed almost 13 million times and his voice continues to reach many millions more through his social accounts and the mainstream media. Now – along with husband, father, and Team Great Knitting legend – we also get to introduce him as an Olympic champion. In his interview immediately after winning synchro gold alongside diving partner Matty Lee, he prefixed that long-awaited title with the words “I am a gay man” and said he was “incredibly proud” to do so. A week later, after taking individual bronze, he mentioned the importance of visibility on a global stage: “I just hope that seeing out sportspeople will help people to feel like they are less alone, like they are valued, like they can achieve something.” It won’t get as many hits as that coming out video, but Daley’s ‘Good Is Gold’ short for Procter & Gamble, which was released in May, is a really powerful piece of film-making in its own right and well worth watching.


X marks the intersection for inspirational shot putter Saunders

Within days of her silver-medal success for Team USA, Raven Saunders received the devastating news that her “number one guardian angel” – her mother Clarissa – had passed away. Having used the Olympic podium as a platform to deliver a message via her crossed-arms ‘X’, the field athlete’s gesture and her loss reminded us how those whose life experiences intersect – be it mental health, grief, race, being LGBTQ+, or others – are often in need of support. “It’s OK to need people and I feel like in our community, a lot of times through history, we haven’t had access to the resources to be able to do that,” she told local media on arrival back home in Charleston. With her Joker facemask, her Incredible Hulk superhero persona, and her activism, Saunders truly transcended her sport.

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Filipino boxer makes podium: ‘This fight is also for the LGBTQ+ community

The Philippines is not one of the 71 nations that still criminalises homosexuality, but it has maritime borders with three that do – Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. There is still, however, no legal recognition for Filipinos in same-sex relationships, and after Nesthy Petecio won silver in the women’s featherweight boxing competition, she recognised the fight for equality as well in her post-match media duties. She also spoke of her personal pride to be LGBTQ+ and vowed to go for gold at Paris 2024. Meanwhile, only one out LGBTQ+ athlete competing at Tokyo 2020 was representing one of those aforementioned 71 countries – swimmer Amini Fonua (Tonga), at his third Olympic Games, who deserves huge praise for his advocacy and activism on behalf of Pacific nations over the years.

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A post shared by Nesthy Petecio (@neshpetecio)

Pizzazz and ‘sparkle motion’ helps to bounce Clarke into trampoline final

There was a record number of out LGBTQ+ athletes at Tokyo 2020 but only 17 of the 182 were men (and one of those was a reserve). In gymnastics, Dom Clarke spoke to me for Sky Sports before his trampoline competition about how some might feel they have “something to prove” – for him, it’s partly about recalling the challenges he faced when he was younger, growing up as a queer gymnast in a hypermasculine environment. Explaining what he brings to trampolining, he said, “I just have that little bit of pizzazz, a little sparkle” and that his style reflects well with the judges on execution. On his Olympic debut, he qualified in fourth spot for the final and were it not for a misjudgement on the mat, he might have medalled. Now he has Games experience, Clarke can look towards Paris 2024 with confidence.

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A post shared by Dominic (@_domclarke)

Landmark triumph for Quinn who’s ‘optimistic for change’ for trans athletes

Two OL Reign team-mates, Quinn and Megan Rapinoe, both smile broadly at each other after accepting their Tokyo 2020 medals. It’s an image that captures friendship, respect, pride, achievement, and it’s one of my favourites from these Games. “Olympic Champions! Did that really just happen?!” wrote Quinn on Instagram – and that seemed an apt response, following on from the message they posted after their first appearance in the football tournament. “I feel aware of the realities,” they wrote after becoming the first out trans Olympian. “The fight isn’t close to over… and I’ll celebrate when we’re all here.” Laurel Hubbard’s participation in women’s weightlifting was, without doubt, significant but it was ultimately anti-climactic – the trail she blazed never felt like one she would be able to savour herself. But Quinn winning gold as part of the Canada team was historic, ground-breaking – and most powerfully, their success is something that does give genuine strength to so many others. Inevitably, changes will come on the IOC inclusion guidelines; for now, more peer-reviewed research and more vocal allies are needed so that trans and non-binary people get the fair consideration they deserve and the opportunities to shine like Quinn has done.

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What were your favourite moments of Tokyo 2020? Were you inspired by any of the LGBTQ+ athletes? Get in touch with us at Sports Media LGBT+ – we’re always keen to hear from you, and we’d love to help you share your story too. Whatever your sport, wherever you are, drop us a line!

And there’s only just over a fortnight to go until the Paralympics begin, where there are sure to be loads more out LGBTQ+ athletes competing, and magical moments to savour…

Sports Media LGBT+ is a network, advocacy, and consultancy group that is helping to build a community of LGBT+ people and allies in sport. We’re also a digital publisher. Learn more about us here.

LGBT+ in sports? Your visibility will inspire other people – sharing your story can be hugely rewarding and you don’t have to be famous to make a positive and lasting impact. We encourage you to start a conversation with us, in confidence, and we’ll provide the best advice on navigating the media as part of your journey so that you retain control of your own narrative.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor