Promoting Inclusion in Athletics

International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia, and Transphobia 2020

Athletics Victoria connected with the Peter Fitzgerald Running Squad to discuss the importance of inclusion in their squad, athletics and sport more broadly, in recognition of IDAHOBIT 2020.

Luke Major was the 400m Hurdles silver medallist at the 2019 Australian Track & Field Championships (51.15sec). The result earned him a place on the Oceania Championships team; a debut in the Australian team for Major. Whilst injury stopped Major from competing in Townsville, the result was indicative of the training environment cultivated by Fitzgerald, explained further by Lawson Power, Michael Tsotsos, Toby Plant, Rory Plant and Nick Cross.

Major is the Partnerships Manager for Proud2Play, an organisation which focuses on increasing LGBTI+ engagement in sport, exercise and active recreation. Major is an openly gay athlete, and reflected on the value of inclusion in a training environment, and how this has contributed to his athletic success.

Recalling coming out as a 14 year old, Major’s sporting role model was Olympic Gold medallist Matthew Mitcham, “I know it’s 2020, and the world was a different place a long time ago, but we don’t have a lot of gay men to look up to as role models in sport. For gay kids not being able to see gay men suceeding in sport, makes them question whether they are allowed to succeed in sport.” Major reflected on how small social acts of inclusion can have substantial effect, “Just because it doesn’t make a difference to your life, or it doesn’t apply to you, it doesn’t mean it can’t make a difference to someone else’s life. A younger me would’ve loved to have seen my sport throwing support behind someone like me, and trying to welcome me for who I am.”

Promotion of inclusion in sporting spaces is key to Major, “If we can work toward elevating some our diverse sportspeople – and one other gay kid see’s this and sticks with the sport – then I think that’s an awesome development.”

Training partner Michael Tsotsos spent the most time with Major when he first joined the squad, Tsotsos the new hurdler, Major the experienced athlete in a new training group. Tsotsos was aware of Major’s previous negative experiences in the sport, and wanted to ensure the squad he values so dearly was different.

“That experience of being isolated is not a good one, and I come from a team oriented background – I found my love and home in athletics – it’s a sport for vagabonds, an individual sport that relies so much on a team or squad aspect. We all wanted to include Luke by treating him as we would’ve treated anybody else, it doesn’t matter what he is, or what he believes in, he’s a seriously nice person and that’s what we judge him on – we don’t judge him on anything other than that.”

Tsotsos views understanding Luke as an individual as a mark of respect, a social process he expects from each group member. This has been reflected in the growth of the squad athletically and socially, “I think it’s paramount for myself, growing as an individual, as well as all the other squad members too, as they grow and as they prosper.”

Another squad member, Toby Plant, first met Luke in Western Australia, and identified the mutually important performance metrics that exist in sport, and the role that plays in being mates with Luke. “I see Luke as one of the best 400m hurdler’s in the country, not as Luke the gay 400m hurdler. Yeah he’s gay, great – he’s one of the boys, a bloody good runner, and he works his arse off at training – and that’s what everyone wants from a squad member.”

The individual differences in a squad are important to Plant, and he notes that these differences are what contributes to the Fitzgerald squad being a comfortable space for every athlete.

“We all have our different beliefs and views on a range of topics in the squad, but that doesn’t put a barrier up between anyone else, so neither do Luke’s beliefs. We’re all there to achieve the same goal – and the best thing about the squad, is we all love it when someone else is successful.”  Major sees that inclusion can come in many forms, including acknowledging difference of individuals. He highlighted how much of a difference this process can make to an individual’s quality of life, “I think it’s important to acknowledge it, but not have the attitude of “it doesn’t matter” – I think it does matter, and recognising that everyone does have that difference, I think that helps create a bit of a culture of openness with your teammates.”

Squad member, Melbourne physiotherapist Nick Cross noted he had seen environments in which homophobic slurs were used, and noted the damaging mental health effects this behaviour posed. Cross reiterated that a zero-tolerance policy for homophobia is essential, “In any social circle, be it family or sporting – I think that people need to be very comfortable to be able to share things with others that are sometimes an issue to come out about. I hope that whatever environment we’re in, we can provide that support, nurturing and caring – because it is a big issue – not just in sporting environments and contexts.”

The social effects of inclusion within a high performance group have been keenly observed by a number of the Fitzgerald squad, noting that the group is not merely a common venue training arrangement – but one in which a strong social bond lifts up all members mentally.

Tsotsos indicated Fitzgerald places an emphasis on friendship within the squad, “It’s so crucial that we all have people we can talk to, we all go through the same things at some point in our life, we can all share our own experiences. That’s where people like Toby, Nick and Rory are so beneficial to have to talk to, as one of the younger guys in the group, I know I can ask them anything, and talk to them without feeling insecure.”

Cross mentioned the long term effect Major has had on the group socially, exists both whilst at training, and whilst socialising in separate walks of life.

“Because of our respect for Luke, and our respect for the topic we’re discussing – I think Luke gives us a lot of courage to speak out when we see certain types of behaviour occurring that are just not acceptable. He provides that rock, and foundation in our group, to feel comfortable speaking out too – I think that’s a great skill that Luke has reiterated in his practices with the group.”

Tsotsos eloquently summarised why sports organisations play key roles in highlighting inclusive practices, “We can all play a role in interviews like this, exposing that those who think Luke is as a person is ‘wrong’ – assist them in correcting that mindset, and encourage individuals to assess why they think those things. It’s most important to get to know the individual first and foremost.”

The interview group agreed that breaking down stereotypes surrounding what it means to be an athlete, or what is required to perform at club, national or international levels is invaluable to all participants in athletics..

Major reiterated this message, “Trying to elevate people as an organisation, to make them visible in the community – if people want to do the sport, they need to see people like them doing the sport.”

This interview with the Fitzgerald training squad highlights the inclusiveness that this squad embodies; not just through their support of one another, but also their broader passions surrounding diversity, and supporting individuality.

May 17 is International day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. This day provides us with an opportunity to promote inclusion and celebrate LGBT+ individuals.

By Sean Whipp