Silence is Golden: Erasing Gay Olympic Champion Matthew Mitcham
Alexander Cho / FLOW Staff

Matthew Mitcham in the 10-meter platform final

Matthew Mitcham in the 10-meter platform final

Let’s play a game of probability for a moment. Let’s cast back to a time just before this summer’s Beijing Olympics and wonder who might answer the following question in the affirmative: Have you ever heard of Australian diver Matthew Mitcham?

Certainly, Australians might answer “yes” more often than, say, Americans. Perhaps gay Australians might answer “yes” more often than straight Australians, since Mitcham made waves coming out as gay in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on May 24, 2008—and we gays tend latch on to our out celebrities. In fact, American gay and lesbian newsmagazine The Advocate ran a cover story with Mitcham just in time for the Olympics, so we might also say that American gays and lesbians might be more familiar with Mitcham than straight Americans.

Let’s get really specific now: I’d wager that NBC diving commentators Ted Robinson and Cynthia Potter were familiar with Mitcham, as were the handful of news producers responsible for NBC’s extensive Olympic coverage. He was, after all, probably the highest-profile Australian male diver at the games.

I’d wager that they were also familiar with the fact that he is gay—in fact, the only out gay male athlete at the Beijing games—and that he has a pretty dramatic story: Young diving phenom, groomed from an early age to join the elite ranks of the sport, takes a year off to find himself, combat depression, and, well, be a teenager. Then he makes a comeback earlier this year, snatching gold at one of the international diving community’s highest-profile meets. After qualifying for the Australian Olympic team, his family has trouble scraping together money to send his partner, Lachlan, and his mother to be with him in Beijing. American company Johnson & Johnson steps in, awarding a $5,000 grant to send Lachlan to Beijing—the first ever given to a same-sex partner through their Athlete Support Program. Sydney’s gay and lesbian community bands together to raise funds to have Mitcham’s mother join him.

Mitcham on the podium

What we didn’t see: Mitcham on the podium

The point of this probability exercise? Where one falls in the terrain of discourse around certain topics is a function of, among other things, particular identity categories. Conversely, those identity categories also shape the way information is controlled. No real surprise, I hope—but necessary to point out, because of what followed after the men’s 10-meter platform finals.

Mitcham performed the highest-scoring dive in the history of the Olympics, a back two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists, receiving four perfect 10’s. His score on this dive, 112.10, propelled him past Chinese diver Zhou Luxin to give him the gold medal, upsetting a Chinese men’s and women’s diving gold medal sweep. As the stunned crowd realized what had happened, Mitcham burst into tears, head in hands.

Mitcham, upon learning he won the gold

Mitcham after learning he won the gold

Then, as if it never happened, we never saw the medal ceremony. (NBC relegated it to its web site.) We never saw a reaction shot from Mitcham’s partner after his final dive, and we never saw him run into the stands after receiving his medal to give Lachlan a hug and kiss.

And that was the last we heard. Until members of the gay blogosphere started wondering why such a dramatic upset received so little coverage. Clearly, there were no Americans on the podium, and it’s no secret that NBC doesn’t think that makes for good TV. But then we started wondering why NBC commentators Robinson and Potter never even mentioned the historic fact that Mitcham was the only openly gay male athlete at these games, especially after his epic final dive clinched the gold. Or why they never showed Lachlan’s reaction in the crowd, as we are used to with so many other (straight) athletes.

NBC was not present at the impromptu press conference Mitcham gave—on what seems like a Beijing sidewalk—standing next to his mother and Lachlan, thanking them both, and even giving Lachlan a nuzzle or two. This evasion was not solely a symptom of American indifference; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation houses a clip of a different press conference on its web site—shot seemingly at the same time on the same Beijing sidewalk—but without Mitcham’s mother and partner by his side.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWxX8OdZ2Tg[/youtube]

Bloggers from AfterElton.com, a gay entertainment blog, managed to get a hold of an NBC spokesperson regarding both the omission of the medal ceremony and the erasure of Mitcham’s sexuality. Here’s what he had to say:

“In virtually every case, we don’t discuss an athlete’s sexual orientation…Not every athlete has a personal discussion. I could show you 500 athletes we didn’t show. We don’t show everyone. We don’t show every ceremony.”

Bloggers were quick to point out that the sexual orientation of many, many athletes gets “discussed” all the time by NBC as part of its normative, heterocentric discourse: a tabloid-fueled love triangle between Italian and French swimmers; the spotlighting of track-and-field athlete Sanya Richards’ fiancé. And what about that incessant footage of Olympic officials combing the sand at the beach volleyball courts searching for Kerri Walsh’s lost wedding ring? Never mind, also, that other major print and web news outlets managed to tastefully mention the historic nature of Mitcham’s sexual orientation at these games without eclipsing the story of his win.

Days later, NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel issued this terse apology:

“We regret that we missed the opportunity to tell Matthew Mitcham’s story. We apologize for this unintentional omission.”

I’d like to borrow a concept from Haitian-born historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot at this point. As he wonders why the Haitian revolution has all but disappeared from the annals of history, he proposes the idea that, to the writers of history, the possibility of black slaves organizing and staging a successful rebellion was “unthinkable.” Key to explaining this is what he calls “formulas of erasure”:

“What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research, and therefore, of mention.”1

Serious object of mention, indeed. Taking Trouillot out of a historiographical context and applying him to the shaping of contemporary media—and knowing what we know NBC and its commentators knew at the time of Mitcham’s win—we might replace the word “unintentional” in Zenkel’s apology with the word “unthinkable.” That an openly gay elite athlete would win gold at his sport’s most important competition? Unthinkable. That he would be a comfortably openly gay elite athlete, to boot? Unthinkable. That a major American broadcast network would dare to allow this reality on the air? Unthinkable.

Mitcham about to embrace his partner in the stands

Mitcham himself wants to be known as more than a “gay diver”; at issue here is not whether NBC decided to pigeonhole him as such. It is rather the purposeful, systematic erasure of his sexuality from their coverage, for his story could only awkwardly at best fit into their particular brand of feel-good heteronormative discourse. What is most insidious is that erasures of this sort are often not proactively orchestrated. Again, Trouillot:

“Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural.”2

We don’t know who made the call—if at all—to exclude Mitcham’s partner, to relegate the medal ceremony from broadcast coverage, or to silence any mention of his unique story during commentary. But that is, in fact, the crux: we won’t, because there is no paper trail.

Like a series of nested dolls, the further our own particular identity categories remove us from the terrain of this discourse, the more invisible Matthew Mitcham becomes, even after his epic victory. The average gay TV and sports blogger probably knows who he is, but the average American? Probably not, because an athlete’s sexual orientation is “not discussed.” If this all feels like gay bloggers are making a big deal out of nothing, then that’s precisely the point.

*NBC diving commentator Cynthia Potter’s name was corrected from the original version of this post.

Image Credits:

1. Matthew Mitcham in the 10-meter platform final
2. What we didn’t see: Mitcham on the podium
3. Mitcham after learning he won the gold
4. Mitcham about to embrace his partner in the stands

Please feel free to comment.

image_print
  1. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 99. []
  2. Ibid. 106. []

15 comments

  • A lot of folk are blogging along the same lines, but I like your reasoning here. I’d go a little further, but without much evidence on my side, so maybe it is just pure conjecture? Perhaps Matthew’s extraordinary accomplishments, his humour, modesty and his articulate nature, all of which should be an advertiser’s dream are being shoved to the back because many or at least some of those making decisions, selecting media, commentating in maninstream media or even writing articles about him are actually gay and closetted themselves. So, to comment favorably on Matthew would be to give away too much of their own sheltered sad existence, or failing that their own bigotry, fears and selfishly based prejudices.
    What would I know?

  • Alex, thanks for bringing to my attention something that was completely overlooked during the massive amounts of Olympic coverage this summer. What I found particularly interesting/sad was the discourse surrounding the women’s team sports and what sort of commentary was going on during the event. As much as the commentators avoided Mitcham’s sexual orientation, the women’s sports commentators did their best to give the idea the USA softball team was filled with mothers, wives and girlfriends. It seems as much as Mitcham’s story was kept to his athleticism and gold medal, the women’s softball team was kept to images of ideal womanhood. It is frustrating to know that most commentators, regardless of what sport they are working with, will only project normative discourses about athletes.

  • Wow. The highest-scoring dive in the Olympics, ever. And, I would think, with all of the attention devoted to the aquatic center and broken records, surely I would have heard about Mitchham. Unfortunately, I had much the same viewing experience as Tiff–this is the first I’ve heard of the Australian diver.

    Is it just me, or does it seem like the American coverage of the Olympics has gotten into the routine of picking a single athelete to “represent” the American interest in the games. According to Sports Illustrated, over 26% of US Olympics coverage centered on Michael Phelps. The next most covered athlete, Natasha Lukin, commanded only a little over 4% of total US Olympics coverage. And while I don’t know the figures for the Winder Olympics directly preceding, I’m sure most people can remember the name Apollo Ohno, without recalling many of the less favored athletes. Certainly this is a different issue than that surrounding the intentional erasure of specific identities, however, I feel that it does feed into a similar desire of broadcasters to paint a very specific and narrow narrative of the Olympics.

  • Mal – I agree. No doubt there are many people in broadcasting — sports broadcasting in particular — that might be in the closet. And their reality might influence what gets covered and what doesn’t. What fascinates me is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” aspect of it all; how individual opinions and preferences might inform as well as defer to a systematic suppression in mainstream discourse. In other words, I think it would take a pretty ballsy sportscaster to say, “Yes, I want to mention his sexuality because I think that’s historic and important, especially given the prevailing attitude toward being gay and professional sport.”

    Tiff – So interesting that you bring up a very purposeful heteronormative framing of the US women’s softball team! It’s almost like they’re working overtime not just to silence potential alternative sexualities (as with Mitcham) but pave it over with straight girliness. Do you think this might be a more overt attempt to silence any sort of discourse, especially since there is at least one out lesbian on the team? It’s not a stretch to assume that NBC knows this. If so, this what you describe is in a sense worse than mere erasure!

    Kit – Glad you brought up Michael Phelps. People certainly have no problem discussing his sexuality.

  • Not any insightful commentary, just a note: the diving commentator is Cynthia Potter, not Cynthia Rotter :-)

  • Great article, Alex! One thing I’d like to add, alongside your argument, is the lack of coverage of women who don’t meet standard definitions of beauty. Of course, this echoes Tiff’s discussion of the framing of the women’s softball team as conventionally feminine and heterosexual (no doubt to counteract the presumptions that female softball players are butch lesbians), and your critique of the affirmation Sanya Richards and Kerri Walsh’s heterosexuality.

    Importantly, many of these athletes fit a certain body type — slender. Considering them with the women’s gymnastics teams, a casual viewer might assume that the only women or girls who competed in the games were either tall and skinny or short and skinny. While all of them have muscle tone and strength, by virtue of their rigorous training, this isn’t emphasized my the media. Thus, as a viewer, I felt the absence of bigger, bulkier female athletes, like New Zealand’s Valerie Vili, who won the women’s shotput. I blinked and almost missed her medal ceremony, but would’ve very much liked to see her (and the other women who competed in the shotput) on my TV screen, in all her glorious heft.

  • I can’t believe I’m actually about to defend the normative nature of the media here, but just to play devil’s advocate a bit to Tiff’s observations of the women softball team I’m going to throw this out there. Obviously there is a stereotype (at least here in the US) that softball players are “butch” and “dykes.” So, had the media chosen to focus more on the women’s lesbian sexual identities, wouldn’t they (the media) have also been critiqued for just perpetuating stereotype? I can hear it now, “Oh sure NBC, because all women softball players are lesbians!” I guess the answer lies somewhere in between…In Mitcham’s case though, as Alex argued, I think the silencing is completely absurd because to my knowledge a stereotype of male divers sexuality doesn’t really exist so the media didn’t have to try to walk the fine line. I’m not trying to justify the Olympic coverage that portrayed softball players as ideal representations of normative femininity – just saying that they could have gone too far the other way as well…

  • “In virtually every case, we don’t discuss an athlete’s sexual orientation…Not every athlete has a personal discussion.”

    “Virtually every case”? Really? That’s the absolute best answer they could come up with?

    In “virtually every” stupid human interest piece I had the stomach to sit through, there was discussion of someone’s supportive girlfriend (Eric Shanteau), someone else’s two marriages, current relationship, and child (Dara Torres), how MARRIED and HAPPY others are–but not to one another (Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh)…The list could go one. These are examples off of the top of my head from my limited Olympics viewing, but almost everything I saw made some mention of a hetero relationship. I would actually be interested in seeing some numbers related to the times commentators either overtly or covertly reinforce “straightness” in their broadcasts.

    Just because there isn’t a “personal discussion” doesn’t mean disappearing isn’t taking place.

    Great piece, Alex.

  • I hate that I can’t go in to edit my comment.

    “Just because there isn’t a “personal discussion” doesn’t mean disappearing isn’t taking place.” I mean, that’s how erasure takes place. If we don’t have this “personal discussion”, if we don’t talk about “it”, it never existed.

    Mitcham isn’t gay, and all softball players are straight. I am glad NBC cleared all of this up. Now we can all go back to watching Phelp’s win and speculate about what he is listening to on his iPod. My guess is Korn.

  • As I understand it, the medal ceremony and the victory kiss were broadcast live on Australian television and then replayed on the national news

  • Bob Costas spoke on this subject in an interview on September 15th with afterelton.com.

    http://www.afterelton.com/peop.....page=0%2C0

  • Taylor Torres-Ulrich

    Matthew Mitcham’s story is one the bothered me too during the Olympic coverage. While I did not know the details of his personal struggles (How could I when his story wasn’t covered…), I did understand that being the only openly gay male in the entire Olympics was something worth noting. As you mentioned, this coverage was lacking. The author Darnel Hunt discusses the over representation of black people (or black-ness) in television; it seems that with both the Matthew Mitcham case, and the gay community as a whole, the representation of their people has been skewed. Much like what Hunt argues, it seems that the representation of “model” homosexuals in mainstream media is ever present. Shows like Will and Grace and The L Word are not only present, but popular. The problem with this over representation is that it is not real. While it does work to begin to represent the gay community it does so in a way that presents characters instead of people. Fake instead of real. I am unsure if this is a product of our societies ability to handle issues of race, class and sexuality better if they are fictionalized, or if it is due to our inability to distinguish between reality and fiction as a whole. No matter what the reason, the fact remains: we need to start introducing out culture to gay people who are real, with real stories, real parters and real successes. While these stories of people may not be as funny as Will and Grace, or as dramatic as The L word, at least they will be real.

  • A fabulous article Alex.Thank you! …and thanks too for the insightful comments of others I read here. I burst with pride as an Australian to see Matthew acknowledged as this countries first ‘out’ International sporting icon. In a country which reveres it’s sportsmen and women this is an historic first. Australian coverage of the event was reasonable. I believe it could have been better but all the points which have been touched on here were acknowledged and film time included Matthew’s partner and family. I am saddened however by the seeming reluctance of sponsors to offer Matthew the support he deserves. I have a feeling that those who have will be rewarded. This guy is a beautiful, articulate, unpretentious young man and his public persona is growing.
    regards,Kel.

  • Merci pour l’info. Cela me paraît fort intéressant. Amicalement,

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