In 2018, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics set a record by having 15 gay athletes compete openly.
Kim Meylemans, competing in skeleton, was one of them.
Tell us about yourself, and how you started skeleton.
I was born in the south of Germany, but both my parents are Belgian.
I grew up in the south of Germany and when I was 10 I went to boarding school in the mountains. At that point all I did was play soccer, and I had never really thought of any other sports at that point. Obviously in the mountains people are crazy about winter sports. First I started skiing and I liked it but I never thought of it as a professional sport. Then one day someone came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in doing skeleton or luge.
What I liked about skeleton was the combination of the really explosive starts, and then just jump on your sledge and go. I liked that it was a demanding sport with a lot of physical impact but also the brain work that goes with it. So I decided to give skeleton a try and I ended up really liking it and here I am today, representing Belgium at the Olympic Games.
How do you feel right before a competition?
For me, when it’s your turn to perform and you stand at the line, you are so pumped, and it's a weird feeling you don't get with anything else. You can feel your heart beat so hard. You stand at the line and you still have to be calm because once you're on your sled, every movement you make is going to affect your run. So it's full control of your body and mind.
You’re one of few openly gay athletes - when did you know you were gay?
I had boyfriends in high school and never really thought there was a possibility that I could fall for girls even though I just didn't think of it in general. I always had really close friendships with girls, and now looking back at it, maybe it was too close to be ‘just friendships’.
I was 17 the first time I really fell in love and kissed a girl. She was on the Belgian bobsleigh team and I was on the skeleton team. It was easy to keep it secret for a while because you're travelling a lot, you're not home, and the people around you are always the same. I really liked her but I didn’t know what that would mean. And then we started dating seriously, and we still kept it a secret from everybody for about six months. The only person who knew of this relationship was my best friend because she is also gay and it was easier to talk with her.
Have you come out to your parents?
Yes, I came out to my Mom at Christmas that same year, I was 18.
My mom and I are very close, so I think she saw it coming and when I came out she was a bit upset. Not because I was gay, it was more about what it implied in her mind, picturing me without kids and what not. She was also worried things would be a lot harder for me in life with my career and everything else.
Now she's completely fine. She's probably more obsessed with my girlfriend than I am, it's really funny to watch. And my dad is also understanding and accepting.
Did you come our to your team?
I never really had to come out to anyone on my team.
They all know, but I think no one cares. If someone asks me if I have a boyfriend I just answer “No, I have a girlfriend,” instead of coming out explicitly.
Maybe it's harder in team sports, because you change and shower together, so there might be people who are uncomfortable with that. But in skeleton...nobody cares. During the World Cup we travel 10 weeks in a year together so we all know each other pretty well. We're a really tight group, so hiding something like that would be almost impossible.
You were among athletes to urge the International Bobsleigh Skeleton Federation (IBSF) to move the 2017 World Championships from Sochi to somewhere else as punishment for state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Did you get backlash for it?
My coach and I already decided half a year before that we wouldn't go to the World Championships in Sochi for several reasons, but most of all because we don't feel comfortable competing in Russia. When Lizzy (ie.Lizzy Yarnold, British athlete and Olympic Skeleton Champion) said that she didn’t want to compete if the Russians were competing, it meant a lot to me. I picked it up and supported her on social media saying that I agree with her, and added that I won’t support the human rights situation in Russia, especially considering how LGBT people were treated.
On the base of that I got a lot messages coming in from Russia. Unfortunately, most of them were not really nice and very aggressive. I did not imagine there would be so many people reacting to this . The Belgian media picked it up really quickly as well but luckily the Belgians were really supportive of me and backed me up.
It was hard at that moment because I was preparing for my next race, and every time I logged onto Facebook, people sent me messages saying homosexuality is like cancer, and that I should never be allowed to go to Russia! I had pictures of guns pointed at me, and then my whole feed was overflowing with threats.
First it hit me really hard. I did not realize how bad the situation was because living in Belgium and being surrounded by so many supportive people, we cannot imagine how bad it is elsewhere. And then suddenly you get homophobic messages - I was shocked about the way certain people still think. People still think it's not okay to be gay, and even worse people still think homosexuality is a disease that can’t be cured.
And that story was picked up back at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games…
Yes it was, and because of that I got new waves of hate.
I got messages from Russians who were not really happy about it. But I also got a lot of messages from a lot of people and kids who were happy to hear that I was openly gay, and reached out to me saying: "I really support you, and it's so good to see all this". To me - that's worth a lot more than all those Russian messages that I got. Also, for the first time, I got a supportive message from a Russian man who said he felt sorry for me and apologized on behalf of all of those who insulted me.
Do you think it’s important for athletes to be ‘out’?
I believe that when you have to hide something like that the whole time, being an athlete, you will never compete as freely and as well as when you are truly who you are.
All these guys playing soccer or rugby will never even reach their personal heights in sports because they’re always holding back, and always scared to do a wrong move and for someone out there to misinterpret it.
Whereas when you are just who you are, you realize that people are okay with it, you're just free. You can do whatever you want, you feel the support authentically and it just gives you wings.
Are you surprised that there is a record of 15 openly gay athletes in these 2018 Olympic Games?
When I learned that there were officially only 15 openly gay athletes and that it was considered the ‘all time record number of out athletes in the Olympics’, I was very surprised. I actually know more than 35 other athletes who are openly gay to their friends and family but just not to the media.
It made me realize that it’s still necessary to talk about LGBT people at the Games to show that it’s increasingly accepted. There were many people reaching out to me at that point supporting me for being openly gay.
The media is starting to support LGBT stories more and more and I thought it was really cool to see Gus Kenworthy and his boyfriend being themselves in front of the camera. I hope that other athletes who still think they need to hide it from the public because of sponsorships, national federations not supporting (...) feel reassured by how well the media can portray these athletes.
What would you say to athletes who are scared of coming out?
I would say that the first step is just to reach out to somebody that you do think can help and understand you. For me it was a big help to have my best friend and talk to her about it. So for every young athlete out there, or every young person in general, that doesn’t really know what to do, try to reach out to somebody close to you.
I’m sure that if you text any of the athletes out at the Games they will support and guide you because they’ve been through it.
I’ve always supported kids that texted and who needed someone to talk to about it. Of course it's scary - especially in a teams sport. You don’t know how people will react, but all I can say is that 95 percent of the time it's all good! Just be yourself and people will love you for being you.