Mark Tewksbury’s Olympic gold medal goes to human rights museum

Canadian Olympian Mark Tewksbury tells the story of his gold medal win during a news conference at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights on Thursday. John Woods / The Canadian Press

WINNIPEG – Swimming legend Mark Tewksbury says it’s only fitting that he present his gold medal from the 1992 Olympic Games to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Tewksbury said he couldn’t have won the 100-metre backstroke in Barcelona if he hadn’t had the support of people who knew he was gay.

That support was particularly important because it came at a time when it wasn’t OK to be open about homosexuality, he said.

Tewksbury, who came out publicly in 1998, said he felt unsafe doing so before then.

He has since become an advocate for the rights of athletes of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

His medal will be part of a new exhibition at the human rights museum that explores the power of sport to inspire positive change.

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“I’ve always said for me, that medal is a human rights medal,” Tewksbury said Thursday. “It was done because someone created a space for me to be me.”

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The Calgary swimmer recalled the days leading up to the 1992 Games and how he began to feel it was time to be more open about being gay. He turned to his technical swim coach Debbie Muir.

“I’ll never forget being at a restaurant downtown. The moment had come. I said, ‘Debbie, I have to tell you something.’

“I said the words. I said, ‘I’m gay.’ And she welled up with tears. She said, ‘I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for you all these years. Know that you have someone 1,000 per cent behind you.’ ”

Sharing it with someone was such a relief that it gave him a boost at the Games, Tewksbury said.

“I remember being in the ready room, surrounded by the best swimmers in the world. For my entire career, being gay had been a negative, a liability. And in that moment, I looked around the room and I thought to myself, what makes me different from these guys? I’m gay!

“I owned it. I was totally empowered. And I went out there, set a personal record and won the gold medal.”

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Tewksbury said there’s still a long way to go before LGBTQ athletes are accepted in sport, but he added the momentum is there now for more rapid change.

“It takes education to confront discrimination and create a world where everyone has the basic human right to be themselves. Sport is an important venue for raising awareness — and so is this museum.”

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