February 7, 1968– Mark Tewksbury:
“Keeping up the image of Canada’s boy next door, while feeling a lot like the girl next door wasn’t very easy.”
Johnny Weissmuller, Ian Thorpe, Matt Biondi, Michael Phelps (the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals) and of course, Mark Spitz… I am zany for Olympic swimmers! In 2013, lovely, lithe diver Tom Daley beat the tabloids at their own game: He came out of the closet entirely on his own terms. Not that unusual in the 21st century, but still a rarity in sports. On his own YouTube channel, Daley announced he had something to say: He had fallen in love, and it just so happened to be with a guy. I like the new matter-of-fact method of opening the closet door. When Mark Tewksbury won Olympic gold in 1992, there were no gay characters on television and talking about his sexuality was considered taboo. There were nearly no positive gay role models in sports.
Olympic medalist Tewksbury was closeted throughout his competitive swimming career, but since coming out of the closet, he has become a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights. Going into 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Tewksbury was ranked fourth in the world, and most experts picked him as one of the powerful swimmers with a chance to win the gold medal. Tewksbury’s winning gold was Canada’s first at the Barcelona games and the first Canadian gold medal in swimming since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which Russia had boycotted. Tewksbury also won a bronze medal in the relay event in Barcelona. He made the cover of Time Magazine. He was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall Of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall Of Fame, and the International Swimming Hall Of Fame, plus he was named 1992’s Canada’s Male Athlete Of The Year.
In December 1998, Tewksbury finally told the world that he was gay. He was the first Canadian athlete to voluntarily be open about his gayness and his announcement drew a lot of public attention. He almost immediately lost a very lucrative contract as a motivational speaker because he was “too openly gay.”
Like most athletes that happen to be gay, Tewksbury competed for years while in the closet, winning medals and making money doing endorsements. Tewksbury:
“The only gay swimmer I knew of was Greg Louganis and he was spoken of terribly behind the scenes because of his sexuality. So, in that regard, it pushed me further back into the closet.”
In 2006, Tewksbury published a book, Inside Out: Straight Talk From A Gay Jock, where he writes about the terrible infighting among organizers of the Olympic Games, as well as the International Gay Games, and the newly formed Out Games. He resigned from the International Olympic Committee over the lack of accountability, accusing them of rampant corruption. He was also part of a group of former Olympic athletes who pushed for the resignation of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.
Only months after the scandal surrounding the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games broke, Tewksbury became known as an outspoken critic of the IOC and he demanded reforms to the system. Part of what Tewksbury stood for was integrity in sports, and he “had a complete crisis of faith in the leadership of amateur sport”, including the IOC. With 80 other jocks from around the globe, he founded Olympic Athletes Together Honorably (OATH), a group dedicated to reforming the IOC to eliminate cronyism and lack of real accountability.
“I gazed around the room slowly. The best swimmers from Russia, Cuba, the United States, Spain, Germany and France were in front of me. And I was different. I was the fag. And in that moment, I owned my truth completely. I thought: ‘If these guys knew how hard it was for me to get here, they wouldn’t believe it. They have no bloody clue what I have been through. Or how strong I am’.”
Tewksbury is very candid about embarrassing, humorous and unflattering things about his personal life, including his involvement in a serious three-way relationship with a gay couple and his persistent pursuit of a certain professional male escort.
In December 2008, Tewksbury was invited by the government of France to speak at the United Nations in NYC on the day that a declaration was introduced that affirms International Gay Rights and seeking to decriminalize homosexuality around the globe. Tewksbury remains a spokesman for The International Day of Sport For Development And Peace which highlights the role sports can play in achieving sustainable progress and change. This year’s celebration is Thursday, April 6th.
“Sport is also an important enabler of sustainable development. We recognize the growing contribution of sport to the realization of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”
In 2009, Tewksbury was inducted into Canada’s LGBT Human Rights Hall Of Fame in honor of his outstanding achievements and his efforts to end discrimination in the world of sports. He was named the Chef de Mission (a sort of team manager) of the 2012 Canadian Summer Olympic team.
Tewksbury presented his Olympic gold medal to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg for a 2015 exhibit promoting the power of sport to influence positive change, and he served as Master of Ceremonies for three of the Dalai Lama’s Canadian visits.
Tewksbury lives in Ottawa with his longtime partner Benjamin Kiss, a former Swiss figure skater and now working as an actor.
Pretty darn cool.