|Jim Atkinson at Gay Games VI, Sydney (photo Outsports)|
I've known I was attracted to men since my very early teens growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was a household which took religion seriously, so the question of my sexuality was a continuing source of conflict and anxiety which I never shared with anyone. The idea of homosexuality was such an unsettling one that I simply had to find a way to diffuse the anxiety. Sport was my mechanism! My older sister was an international-level athlete who ran for Great Briatin, my parents played sport, and I had all the support I could have wanted in getting involved. I loved sport, I was quite good at it and, after all, homosexuals didn't play sport so no one could ever suspect me of being "queer," could they?
It was many years before I understood how absurd that idea was, but until my mid-twenties it was my defense mechanism of choice. The fact that I didn't have sex with anyone at all till I was 26 meant that the point was academic for many of these years!
To cut a long story short, I played field hockey at school and university, often captaining the side, and eventually became a national league player. I played tennis for my club, and squash at a good standard, but weightlifting became my passion.
I was always a small man, and weights allowed me to become a lot stronger and more powerful — even if not bigger! While completing my master's degree in Experimental Psychology, I "moonlighted" as an instructor in my gym, and the experience was crucial in making me want to coach sport. I loved the interaction with the trainees and I discovered the great rewards of helping people achieve their goals.
The gender of the trainees didn't matter. OK, I knew I was attracted to men (and eventually at 26 did something about it!) but it was the personal interaction which counted. It wasn't an excuse for being with cute men in workout gear!
It helps, of course, that my "take" on sport is almost entirely a "sex-free zone." I've never had much interest in the sort of "Locker Room" fantasy which many gay men enjoy. I've shared shower and locker rooms with literally thousands of naked men since I was 10 and never once felt the smallest hint of sexual arousal. I guess familiarity has completely defused and desensitised any erotic content!
Over a period of 30 years, I have qualified as a coach in field hockey, weightlifting, powerlifting and boxing, and in each of these sports I've been "out." Indeed, the most recent coaching in the Amateur Boxing Club was at their request. They had already made me secretary of the club, knowing I was gay, and they paid the fees for the 5-day course it took to become qualified. My partner Phil also boxes at the club and we simply couldn't have been made more welcome. Fitzroy Lodge is one of the biggest and longest established Amateur clubs in the United KingdomK and has produced many National Champions since it was founded in 1908.
Boxing also been the occasion of an amusing incident and one of the most interesting conversations I've had on the issue of gay sexuality. Two years ago I was with a party of Metropolitan Police and club boxers from London competing against the NYPD (we won!). While being driven round New York in an NYPD police truck, the London boxers and I discussed the issue of gay men parenting. I thought the NYPD officer driving the truck was going to crash! He seemed astonished at what we were discussing, very calmly and rationally, from my perspective as a gay man. Perhaps it's time to question easy assumptions about homophobia in a sport which is often referred to as a bastion of macho conservatism!
The journey from paranoid and closeted teen to openly gay man who played and coached sport on his own terms has been a truly liberating one, and the Gay Games has played its part in making the journey so rewarding. I owe the Federation of Gay Games a great deal — even though I had been "out" in sport for 15 years before I came to NYC in '94. Amsterdam in '98 and Sydney in 2002 just reinforced the positive feelings I have for the Gay Games — although two bronze, one silver and one gold medals obviously helped! To march into a packed Yankee Stadium in '94, together with a wonderful young wrestler from Philadelphia (who I had met that week and who is still a friend), me with my bronze medal, he with his silver, was such an overwhelming emotional experience that I can recall the tears I shed even now. Nothing in my sports experience over almost 50 years can match it!
But what of my experience as an 'out' gay sportsman, sports administrator and coach? Well, I have to report no great trauma, no confrontations, no rejection, no negative comments or overt homophobia. I know it exists. I've just never experienced it at first hand.
For me the rewards of coaching come not just from working with the very talented, but also those who came late to sport — like my long-time partner, Phil. He was even smaller than I as a boy and, as he now describes it at the age of 39, he hated sport with a passion. His physical education at school simply betrayed him. He wasn't good at ball games, hated team sports and was physically small.
Rugby was out of the question and cricket bored him witless. So he did nothing. It was only in his 30s, having hooked up with me, that he discovered that he is a talented runner, loves weightlifting (very strong for his weight) and has become an enthusiastic boxer. Where were the opportunities and the coaches to introduce him to these activities when he was in his teens and twenties? Nowhere to be seen.
My own regular sparring partner at the club, Minh, a Chinese guy in his mid-twenties, always wanted to box, never had the chance when he was younger and was physically small and a shy person. Now he is become a very talented boxer and his girl friend says he is a much happier and fulfilled personbecause of it.
I could go on and on. The thrill of helping people — especially those from unlikely backgrounds — to be the "best that they can be" in sport, is a huge motivation. I don't propose to give it up any time soon! I applaud the FGG and its dedicated volunteers for making a good experience of sport a reality for so many thousands. Long may it continue.
-- Jim Atkinson, London, 21 April 2005