At first it might seem that there’s very little that lgbt gymnasts have contributed to the Olympic Games. After all, there’s only 4 known lgbt Olympic gymnasts (Karin Büttner-Janz, Kris Burley, Laís Souza and Rose Cossar), nowhere near the size of the figure skaters or equestrian riders that I’ve covered in the two previous Olympic Alphabet article.
But if you go back a hundred years to include the Danish gymnast Niels Bukh we see a different picture. I’ve written about Niels Bukh several times before, most recently in my “Around the World in 80 Gays” series. He formed the modern style of gymnastics and would have been the first known lgbt Olympian if he hadn’t been dropped from the Danish team at the 1908 London Olympics because he looked too butch! His influence is still felt today in modern gymnastics.
Karin Büttner-Janz is one of those lesser-known lgbt Olympians who actually holds some significant records. She holds the joint record for the most medals won by an individual lgbt Olympian at one games. At the 1972 Munich games Karin won 2 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze. She shares this record with Ian Thorpe, who won 3 golds and 2 silvers at Sydney 2000. Karin’s medal haul was the highest in the gymnastics events, though the great Olga Korbut won more gold medals (but not on her favourite apparatus, the asymmetric bars, which Karin won – see video below).
In the 1970s the Eastern bloc behind the “Iron Curtain” dominated world gymnastics. Karin represented her native East Germany from the age of 16 and took part in 2 Olympics, Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972. She won medals at both. She even has a gymnastic move named after her, the janz salto. Here’s a video of Karin performing her signature move in her gold-medal-winning routine at the Munich Olympics. It’s near the end when she leaps up from the lower bar and does a backwards somersault before grabbing the upper bar. Blink and you’ll miss it!
There wasn’t to be another lgbt gymnast at the Olympics for another 22 years. In fact, NONE of the remaining lgbt gymnasts were even born when Karin Büttner-Janz was competing (she retied in 1972).
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics the first and, so far, the only male gay gymnast competed. He was Kris Burley of Canada, though he wasn’t out publicly at the time. Kris didn’t make it past the qualifying rounds in the various apparatus in Atlanta but 3 years later at the 1999 Pan-American Games he won 2 bronze medals.
After his competitive career Kris worked in the entertainment and event management industry behind the cameras. He also did what quite a few gymnasts did – he joined Cirque du Soleil. More recently he curated a photographic exhibition called “Heroic Authenticity”.
Kris’s involvement in the Olympics continued during the 2010 Vancouver Winter games. His experience in event management landed him the job as Senior Manager at the receptions held by the Premier of Ontario. During the next games, the Sochi 2014 Olympics, he expressed his opposition to the boycott that many people called for (mostly from those who it wouldn’t have affected, and who showed blatant hypocrisy in not calling for boycotts of several other international sporting events that were held in Russia both before and after the Sochi Olympics).
Also competing for Canada is British-born Rose Cossar. She competed at the London 2012 games in rhythmic gymnastics and was the gymnastics team captain. This was her only Olympic appearance and she retired shortly afterwards. Since then she has come out and has become a leading voice for lgbt inclusion and acceptance in sport. To this end Rose supported the Pride House at last year’s Pan-American Games in Toronto, an event for which Kris Burley played a key role in securing as a member of the Toronto 2015 bid team.
Sometimes athletes retire from one sport to take up another. This is the case with our next lgbt gymnast. Laís Souza had won 3 bronze and 1 silver medals at the Pan-American Games of 2003 and 2007. She competed for Brazil at 2 Olympic Games. Her first was Athens 2004. In the team all-round competition at Beijing 2008 she was won an 8th place Olympic Diploma. In 2012 Laís was again placed on Brazil’s gymnastics team. Unfortunately in the month between being selected and the start of the London games she injured herself in training and was forced to withdraw.
After retiring from gymnastics Laís turned to a totally different sport – aerial skiing. She was selected for the Brazilian skiing team in 2013. Sadly, as with London 2012, she was injured in training a month before competing at the Olympics. Her injuries prior to Sochi 2014 were severe and she was left paralysed from the neck down. Several months later she regained some sensation in her lower body and her slow recovery began. The Rio 2016 Olympic organising committee paid for Laís to receive English lesson while being treated in the USA, and the Brazilian government even granted her a lifetime pension. Laís’s recovery may never be complete, but she had become active in speaking to sports groups, as well as coming out, and when I last checked (December 2015) she was beginning to learn how to walk again. Laís’s competitive career may be over, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was given a place in the Olympic torch relay.
Although it is too early to say for sure, there’s likely to be more lgbt gymnasts at the Rio Olympics this summers, and we may even had 2 male gymnasts competing. Among the hopefuls are Jeffrey Wammes of the Netherlands, who just missed out on a place at London 2012, and America’s Josh Dixon. Both of these gymnasts are openly gay and they will be the first gymnasts to be so at the Olympics.
Before I sign off, there’s one more athlete to mention just briefly. One event included in the Olympic gymnastic programme is trampolining. Only one known lgbt trampolinist has competed at the Olympics, Australia’s Ji Wallace. The reason I haven’t included him fully today is because I intend to include him in my article for the letter J. I won’t reveal what subject will be covered by that letter, but the fact that it’ll be published on February 29th – Leap Day – may be a hint!