The Olympics when LGBTQ+ representation turned a corner

More out LGBTQ+ athletes took part in this year’s Olympics in Tokyo than all previous Olympics combined. Role models and representation are fundamental to young LGBTQ+ people. We highlight a few of our favourite queer athletes at this year’s Olympics.

By Marc Svensson 8th August 2021

Photo by Brian A Jackson

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Marc Svensson

Founder & CEO of Helsa


More out LGBTQ+ athletes took part in this year’s Olympics in Tokyo than all previous Olympics, Summer and Winter, combined. This is an important achievement as role models and representation are fundamental to young LGBTQ+ people's mental health and wellbeing.

Summer Olympics in London 2012 had 23 out athletes. In Rio 2016 that number had more than doubled, to 56. In this year’s Olympics in Tokyo that number more than tripled, to an impressive 182 out athletes (that we know about right now) taking part in the games. The LGBTQ+ athletes came from over 30 countries and competed in over 34 different sports. In this article we highlight and celebrate some of our favourite queer athletes and moments from the Tokyo Olympics.

Soccer - Quinn (and all the other out players!)


Out LGBTQ+ athletes competing in the women's category outnumbered athletes competing in the men's category by a margin of 9-to-1, and in no other sport was the representation higher than in women’s soccer. An impressive 23% (42 players) of the 182 out LGBTQ+ Olympic athletes came from the women’s soccer category, making it the logical sport to start with. 

Amongst the three medal winners, Canada, Sweden and the US, each boosted a handful of LGBTQ+ players, but one player in particular ended up making history as the first out trans non-binary person to win an Olympic gold; Canada’s Quinn

Quinn played on the Canadian team in the Rio Olympics in 2016 winning a bronze medal but were not open about being trans then. They first publicly came out in September 2020 and have since been vocal about their journey and the importance of trans role models and representation in sports, to inspire future generations of athletes to feel comfortable competing as their authentic selves. 

Basketball - Sue Bird & Diana Taurasi

Sue Bird & Diana Taurasi

The US was the country with the most out LGBTQ+ athletes (36) followed by Brazil (18), Canada (18), Netherlands (17) and the UK (16). After soccer, rugby and basketball were the two sports with the second and third most open LGBTQ+ players. In basketball Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi made Olympic history by becoming the first basketball players, of any gender, to win five Olympic gold medals. Sue has been dating US soccer player Megan Rapinoe since the Rio Olympics in 2016, and Diana tied the knot with Australian retired basketball player Penny Taylor in 2017.

Skateboarding – Alana Smith, Alexis Sablone (& Leo Baker)

Alana Smith

Whilst Quinn made history as the first out trans athlete to win an Olympic medal, they were not the only trans athlete to compete in the games. The American skateboarding team had strong queer representation as well, with Alana Smith making history as the first out non-binary (and bisexual) Olympic skateboarder, as well as her teammate Alexis Sablone who identify as queer coming less than one point shy of the medal podium. Finally, trans and non-binary Leo Baker resigned from the US skateboarding team last year to transition, and subsequently missed out on qualifying for the Olympics. 

Weightlifting - Laurel Hubbard

Laurel Hubbard

Two open trans women athletes were also sent to the Tokyo Olympics as a first this year; weightlifter Laurel Hubbard from New Zeeland and BMX Freestyler Chelsea Wolfe from the US. Chelsea was sent as a reserve and ended up not competing in the end, and although Laurel failed to qualify for the finals, she made history as the first out transwoman to compete at the games.

Diving - Tom Daley

Tom Daley

Arguably the most famous out gay male athlete to win a gold (and a bronze) medal at the games (bringing his total to 4 Olympic medals) was UK’s Tom Daley. Tom was one of the 56 LGBTQ+ athletes at the Rio games as well and has since gone on to become a great role model both nationally and internationally. This year saw him win his first Olympic gold alongside Matty Lee in the 10m synchronised dive. He spoke about being an Olympic athlete as well as a proud gay man, father and husband (and an impressive knitter!) following his achievements.

Triple Jump - Yulimar Rojas

Yulimar Rojas

The Outsports' 2020 Female Athelete of the Year did not only win the first Olympic gold medal in the triple jump for her home country Venezuela but also smashed the previous world record set all the way back in 1995. Since she started sports, Yulimar has always been open about her sexuality and fights for the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Whilst all athletes mentioned so far have come from countries that largely accept and support LGBTQ+ people, some queer athletes from countries with less supportive laws and attitudes used their platform as Olympic medal winners to stand up and speak out against injustice.  

Rowing – Katarzyna Zillmann

Katarzyna Zillmann

Rower Katarzyna Zillmann came out publicly by thanking her girlfriend only moments after winning silver with her Polish rowing team. Poland is one of the EU’s least LGBTQ+ tolerant country (alongside Hungary). Katarzyna explained that she wanted to use her platform to help the LGBTQ+ community in Poland that is under increasing threat after its president Andrzej Duda unleashed a hateful campaign against what he called ‘LGBT ideology’ during last years election.

Boxing – Nesthy Petecio

Nesthy Petecio

Nesthy Petecio of the Philippines won silver in womens featherweight boxing and dedicated her medal to her country, her coaches, and to LGBTQ+ people. She and her teammate Irish Magno, who is also part of the LGBTQ+ community, were the first Filipino women to compete in boxing at the Olympics. Although the Philippines does not have laws outlawing same sex relationships, discrimination and abuse against the LGBTQ+ community is rife. 

Shot put - Raven Saunders

Raven Saunders

Raven Saunders, a black LGBTQ+ athlete competing for the US, won silver in womens shot put and used her platform to stand in solidarity with all minorities facing injustice by raising and crossing her hands to form an ‘x’ as she was on the podium. Afterwards she explained that she wanted to be unapologetically herself and to give light to  "people all around the world who are fighting and don't have the platform to speak up for themselves".

We end this list of out LGBTQ+ athletes on less of a celebratory note and more of one of awareness around intersex, also referred to as difference in sex development (DSD), conditions. 

Sprinting – Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba & Margaret Wambui

Francis Niyonsaba, Caster Semenya & Margaret Wambui

All three 800m sprint medallists from the Rio Olympics in 2016 were barred from competing at 800m in Tokyo, as they are all athletes with intersex/DSD conditions but refused to alter their natural testosterone levels to meet the rules of the sport. Intersex/DSD refers to variations in typical physical sex characteristics which might include variations in chromosomes, genitals, reproductive organs, and/or hormone functions. There are over 40 different variations that are currently considered intersex/DSD conditions.

Caster has famously challenged the rules, arguing that she should be able to compete without surpressing her natural hormones. Regulating intersex/DSD conditions is a complicated problem that highlights two important aspects of competitive sports; gender categorizing and genetical/natural physical advantages. There is no easy solution to either of these two issues but both need careful attention and consideration as the number of gender non-conforming or gender atypical athletes are likely to increase in the future.

LGBTQ+ representation did indeed turn a corner at ths years Olympics. My hope for Paris 2024 is that the momentum will continue to grow, in particular relating to three specific points;

Firstly, that we find a fair way of including athletes that don't fall neatly into the gender binaries.

Secondly, that we triple the number of out LGBTQ+ athletes yet again, from 182 to 600! Seeing as there were around 11,000 athletes taking part in this years Olympics, 600 out athletes would represent 5.5% of the total number of athletes competing at the games.

And finally, that we see male athletes across the sports come out in greater numbers, ultimately matching their female counterparts in being out and proud LGBTQ+ athletes.

Having said that, Tokyo was no doubt an Olympic to be proud of.