In the wake of Matthew Mitcham’s 2008 gold medal win at the Beijing Olympics, the then newly-out diver was vocal about the difficulty he encountered landing sponsorship deals to help fund his sporting career.
What one would expect to be a piece of cake for a photogenic, media-savvy Olympic athlete with an interesting backstory was in fact a hard slog.
Since then, Mitcham has secured financial support from Telstra and struck up sponsorships with Funky Trunks swimwear — and now, Promax protein bars.
“I think it was bad timing,” Mitcham told the Star Observer of the initial sponsorship drought.
“The global financial crisis was just taking hold as the Olympics finished.
“I’ll never really be sure if it was just that or the gay thing too, but who knows — it might have taken people a while to warm up to me, and to realise I’m not a flash in the pan.”
Mitcham now has his eyes on a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
But a glance at his official Facebook fan page seems to shatter the stereotype of the blindly focused elite athlete, ignoring all other aspects of life in pursuit of perfection. Mitcham regularly shares exploits from his active social life with his supporters, from bowling nights to dress-up parties.
“It’s taken a long time to try to get a balance. I feel like I don’t have enough of a social life sometimes, and I’ve neglected my friends over the years.
“There is that stereotype of athletes being as bland as cardboard, which is just not me.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t work hard.
“[Training] is always full-on, it doesn’t let up. I won the World Cup last year, which was right in the middle of the Olympic cycle, so the world champs [to be held in Shanghai in July] are my next focus — the results are a really good indication of how preparations for the Olympics are going.
“After the world champs, I’ll have a two-week break before I knuckle down again for London.”
And beyond London?
“It’s wasted mental energy thinking beyond that. London’s really important, and my results there will determine how I continue.”
Mitcham may have a few more openly gay athletes to compete alongside in 2012. Recent outings by Swedish footballer Anton Hysén and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas have helped swell the ranks of gay sportspeople.
“Guys are coming out all over the place! For a while, I felt like the only gay in the village, so each person who comes out makes me swell with pride even more and think that the world is changing.”
Photo: Foxtel/Nick Wilson