Rainbow Laces comes to Scottish athletics

Rainbow Laces

One of the big sports stories of the last week has been the decision of rugby league star Keegan Hirst to come out. People have rightly praised his bravery. But others will be probably be thinking surely it doesn’t matter, it’s nobody’s business but his own. However, the very fact that it’s such an uncommon story tells us why it does matter.

When Scotland on Sunday published its Pink List in 2014 the idea was to celebrate the inclusion of LGBT people who were making a difference to the life of the nation in the wake of the equal marriage victory. It was noted that sport and business were two areas where there remained an under representation of openly LGBT people.

It’s perhaps no surprise that sport is one of those areas. Its physicality, particularly in contact sports, can make for a charged environment where the idea of alternative sexuality is threatening. The emphasis on participation in teams in many sports can be a trigger for exclusion rather than inclusion from an early age. And sports like football and rugby have long been home to a macho culture with no shortage of homophobia.

Sport is a sphere where the presumption of heterosexuality remains, albeit often unintended. And the sporting establishment, while doubtless consisting of people who aren’t prejudiced on a personal level, remains for the most part silent. Openly gay sports people are the exception and when they do come out, often after retirement, they acknowledge that the culture of sport itself is part of the problem.

This weekend, Rainbow Laces comes to athletics in Scotland at the national age graded championships in Grangemouth. Rainbow Laces originated as a campaign to kick homophobia out of football, with players including Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tying rainbow laces in their boots and speaking out to make their sport as welcoming as possible.

Now, following a meeting earlier this year which I helped to set up, Scottish Athletics has teamed up with Stonewall Scotland to make it happen. The idea is simple. By wearing rainbow laces, competitors will showing that athletics welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans athletes, coaches, volunteers and supporters.

It sits alongside an increasingly rich tradition of initiatives, mostly led by LGBT people themselves, to make sport inclusive and homophobia free. In Scotland, the outstanding work of LEAP Sports Scotland and the pioneering Glasgow Frontrunners are just great two examples.

The Rainbow Laces campaign has the backing of track star Eilidh Child and, fingers crossed, will be a great success. My personal motivation for helping to make it happen was that it brings together two big parts of me which growing up seemed disparate, at times irreconcilably so. And that’s so often the way that discrimination works.

When people come out, one of the things they will invariably say is that it means they can be who they are. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But when you have to hide part of who you are, life becomes fragmented, complicated to navigate and even fearful.

When I went to an all boys secondary school back in the early 70s it was clear that if I didn’t want to be billy no mates I needed to participate in sport. Rugby was popular and one of our PE teachers was former union, turned league player Keith Fielding who played for Salford and appeared in the BBC series Superstars. Football was popular too but I had no aptitude for either. So I decided to run.

I wasn’t naturally gifted but training pays off and I was lucky to be part of a very successful school team including someone who went on to represent England at the 1986 Commonwealth Games. I went on to join a very successful club, Sale Harriers. It was a hugely rewarding and formative part of my teenage years but it definitely wasn’t the place to be gay.

The changing room banter from pals and teachers was pretty constant but the only thing to do back then was to keep schtum. The older I got the more I was aware of the tension. A sporting environment wasn’t really the place to be but I had grown to love running. And a part of me gradually realised that participating in a successful sports team was a very effective way of allaying any suspicions.

When I returned to competitive racing with Edinburgh AC a few years ago after more than two decades out of the sport it was a very different experience. Partly that’s because I’ve long since been openly gay and there wasn’t any going back and partly it’s because the world really has moved on. I haven’t experienced any personal prejudice and nor do I think I’m likely to.

It’s been a far cry from my experience as a young athlete. Yet hard though it is to acknowledge, I am aware of occasional banter and language which I think I'd find alienating if I was a young athlete still struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. Athletics isn’t and never has been as macho an environment as the big team sports of rugby and football. But it’s not homophobia free either. Yet.

Coincidentally this weekend sees the start of the World Athletics Championships in China. At the last World Athletics Championships in Russia in 2013, there was a considerable focus on new homophobic legislation. Emma Green Tregaro, the Swedish high jumper, painted her nails in rainbow colours as a protest. Pretty mild stuff you’d think. But she was warned that she could be in violation of the competition's code of conduct.

When the incident occurred our own media commentators, again not prejudiced on a personal level I’m sure, clearly found it awkward to talk about sexuality on air. Yet they found it no problem at all to talk about the relationship between one of athletics’ golden couples, Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton who won Gold and Silver in the decathlon and heptathlon respectively. It was a great human interest story.

But at the time I wondered whether it would be possible for the same story being told with ease about a gay couple. It was hard to imagine. Bringing Rainbow Laces to athletics is about challenging the culture of the sport from the bottom up so that it is imaginable, even unremarkable

And of course when it does happen, on one level it will be nobody’s business but that of the athletes themselves. But it will also be a powerful symbol of acceptance and change which I’ll raise a glass to. Meantime, lace up.

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    Chris is a writer, influencer, activist and leader. Find out more about him here. image of Chris Creegan
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