Posted: 16 August 2022

Written by Sam Winton, Scottish Rowing Board Member

It’s been a month of inspiring sporting performances, not just within rowing but from other sports as well. At the opening of the Commonwealth games, there was a powerful reminder of how far we have to come for LGBTQ+ inclusion, as the majority of participating countries still criminalize homosexuality. Sadly, for many sports is still a hostile space where only a privilege few can thrive and find success. This may be determined by gender, sexuality, race or other factors like upbringing and economic status. Nevertheless, when discussing LGBTQ+ inclusion within sport, and particularly rowing, I hear people question the relevance of sexuality or identity – something that would never happen when discussing gender or other characteristics. It’s something I myself have questioned in the past, wondering why it is relevant, yet attending the Eurogames this year showed me why it’s so important to continue having these conversations.

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The Eurogames are an annual LGBTQ+ event, inspired by Gay Games, and this years event represented the 30th anniversary since the very first event, also held in the Netherlands. I was invited along as a part of team Scotland by LEAP sport and was at first apprehensive. Being the only rower for Scotland I was competing with strangers in scratch crews with little experience in a brand-new country. Equally, I recently had to take a step back from rowing and my confidence was at an all-time low. I was unsure whether I could continue in the sport and carry on competing. Yet the experience proved to be exactly what I needed. I was able to experience a sense of community and acceptance, bonding with other LGBTQ+ rowers from across the globe. Getting to compete and chat with the wonderful Zurich Penguins, we were able bond over shared lived experiences and discuss issues we had faced in a open and frank manner. Similarly, I was able to meet more of the London Otters and hear about their journey to becoming one of the largest LGBTQ+ rowing clubs in the world. It was inspiring to also talk to athletes from other sports and disciplines, both allies and LGBTQ+ people. The experience taught me how much energy I had wasted in trying to mask, and then to conform, all ultimately focused on winning approval and acceptance. It also showed me when I was able to be authentically me, without fear of prejudice or hate, I was able to perform at new heights and succeed – something I had not experienced for few years since I learnt to row under the novice program at the University of St Andrews. This was easily my best performance at a rowing regatta, leaving with three silver medals, and arguably it was one of my more competitive regattas.

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Whilst this was a profoundly positive and motivating experience, it is a sad reminder of the distance we still must travel as a rowing community, and as a sporting community. Every person at the games had a story of hate, discrimination and prejudice which has driven them out of the traditional sporting structures towards the Eurogames. Over the last few days, I return to the words of Tina, a transwomen competing in badminton. When speaking at an event set up by the organising committee to share lived experiences, she stated that this was her only opportunity to compete authentically as herself. Tina said that this motivated her throughout the year, throughout the gruelling training, and enabled them to continue to find joy within her sport. Yet this story represents a failing by us as sports people to not allow Tina to flourish all year round in whatever capacity they choose.

The Eurogames, whilst primarily targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community, represented a great event uniting people of different genders, races and backgrounds in a truly intersectional way. I have never attended a more diverse and inclusive sporting competition, and certainly not a rowing regatta this diverse or representative. It was this reason that many heterosexual allies attended, feeling comfortable enough in an environment geared towards marginalised groups and communities, giving space to those that currently don’t have it within sport. As next year's event is due to take place in Bern, I have found new motivation and love for our sport, as well as a desire to share some of the best practice from the Eurogames so we can all find the “love to move”.