Sarah Vaillancourt

Pride on display in 2010 Winter Games

Gold medalist Mark Tewksbury tells a bittersweet story of Olympic joy and peer fear.

The Canadian swimmer won gold in Spain in 1992. After the victory, he wanted to celebrate, and he wanted to live openly, but fear kept him from stepping inside a Barcelona gay bar to savor his victory.

Since then, a number of Olympic athletes have come out after ending their Olympic careers – including Tewksbury.

And the number of competing out athletes has risen – from zero to a handful – in Winter and Summer Games.

Among the thousands of athletes in the Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C., a handful are out – a tiny percentage, but still higher than that for professional sports. And in Beijing two years ago for the Summer Games, which are bigger than the Winter Games, there were 13 out athletes.

Out athletes in the 2010 Olympics include:

  • Hockey player Erika Holst, 30, of Sweden, who came out four years ago.

    She joined her country’s national hockey team in 2002 and won a bronze medal in Salt Lake City that year.

    As of WiG press time, Sweden had defeated Switzerland and Slovakia, but had lost to Canada in preliminary rounds.

  • Hockey player Sarah Vaillancourt, 24, of Canada, who started skating at age 2, but had to wait three more years to play hockey. Vaillancourt skated for Canada in 2006, when the team won Olympic gold in Turin.

    She has received the 2007-08 Patty Kazmaier Award, presented by the NCAA for the top female athlete of the year and, skating for Harvard University, received her conference’s Rookie of the Year Award in 2004-05.

    Vaillancourt, a forward, was still competing as WiG went to press. The Canadian women’s hockey team was favored to win gold.

  • Cross-country skier Vibeke W. Skofterud, 29, of Norway, who has been competing in world contests since 1999.

    In Salt Lake City in 2002, she placed eighth in the women’s 30-K event.

    Skofterud, who came out in the press in 2008, competed Feb. 15 in the women’s 10-K Free and placed 22nd.

  • Speed skater Ireen Wust, 23, of the Netherlands, who began skating at age 11 and adhered to a training regimen of six hours a day in the summer and four hours a day in the winter to prepare for the Olympics.

    She won a gold medal in the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, in 2006, the year she was voted Dutch Sportswoman of the Year.

    Wust finished seventh in the 3,000-meter speed skating race Feb. 14. She also was scheduled to compete in the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter races.

To cater to gay athletes, as well as partners, relatives, coaches, fans and others, Canadian LGBT rights advocates opened the Olympics’ first-ever gay-friendly welcome centers – Pride House Vancouver at the local LGBT community center and Pride House Whistler at the Pan Pacific Hotel in the center of Whistler Village.

“It’s the hope and ambition of the Pride House organizers and GLISA that we jointly set a new tradition for future Olympic events of openness and respect for all athletes, regardless of their sexual preferences,” said Greg Larocque, president of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association-North America.

The stated objectives of the welcome centers are to have fun and to educate and change homophobia in sports.

“People ask why we didn’t have a Pride House in Salt Lake or Turin. Even though it was only four years ago, I don’t think the world was ready for it,” said Pride House founder Dean Nelson.

The welcome centers, outfitted with lounges, cocktail bars and big-screen televisions for sports enthusiasts, have hosted a number of events since the Games began – opening ceremonies, art exhibitions, film screenings and a panel discussion on homophobia and sport.

Nelson said, “Anybody with an open mind is welcome to drop in. We anticipate that quite a few people coming in will be straight people who are curious about what we’re doing and what it’s like to be a gay athlete. We hope it will instill more confidence to all athletes to be authentic.”

The Pride Houses got their names from an Olympic tradition – athletes have long gathered at hospitality centers for celebrating their respective countries and cultures. In Vancouver, athletes are frequenting Casa Italia, Holland Heineken House, House of Switzerland, Sochi House and Korea House.

About 40 people attended the opening of Pride House Whistler, including aboriginal spiritual leader Sandra LaFramboise, who cut the ribbon and blessed the center.

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