Marnie McBean, one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians and an athletic mentor, has some pointed advice for young athletes, especially sexual minorities: Have the courage to be authentic to unlock your potential and maximize your performance.

McBean took part in a seminar focused on LGBTI —lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex — and sports as a panelist at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo in November. Intersex people are those born with sexual characteristics that do not fit the typical binary notions of male or female bodies.

“My message to young athletes is, take the time you need and when you’re ready, be strong. There is a team around you who will love you and embrace you, and your authentic self is the strongest that you have,” the retired competitive rower told the audience.

For those people to be true to themselves, McBean, who won three Olympic gold medals, underscored that it is important to get support from people outside the LGBT community, pointing out that many freedom and equality movements started with supporters who took a stance against minority oppression.

“We don’t have any professional athletes who’ve come out as active athletes (in Canada) but there are allies and they help us avoid stigma so they show us and give us the strength to be our authentic self,” she said.

At the annual pride parade in Toronto, professional sports teams based in the city, including those in the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, have joined the march to show their support, she said.

“So the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, our baseball team the Toronto Blue Jays, they all marched with us as part of our One Team umbrella,” she said.

The One Team initiative by Canada was created to battle gender-based discrimination, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, or any other type of discrimination in sports.

According to the Canadian Olympic Committee, addressing such discrimination will bring significant benefits for all, not just sexual minorities, as it will help remove barriers to participation and make sports a friendlier place for girls and women, for example.

The committee pointed out many girls and women stay away from sports or stay in the closet about their sexual identities out of fear they will be stigmatized.

Gender-based stereotypes are still deeply rooted in society even today, she suggested.

People often think, “Oh, he plays football, he can’t possibly be gay. Oh, she plays football, she must be gay,” McBean said.

But because of the shifting landscape, McBean said athletes are being encouraged to come out instead of worrying about how such action might affect their sponsorship deals and career in sports.

“I would say, there is actually a situation now where sponsors and partners are looking to show their genuine support of the diversity. So now instead of being a disadvantage for coming out, there is an advantage because the community is getting so strong.”

Echoing McBean’s sentiments, Herbert Wolff, director of international relations for the Dutch Olympic Committee, said, “We are convinced that anyone can only be successful in life … if he or she is to be himself or herself and to be true to his own beliefs.”

At the same time, McBean, who has been working since 2006 as a specialist in high-performance athletic preparations, also noted the dangers and risks of coming out still exist, especially outside countries like Canada and the Netherlands, which are more tolerant of the values shared in the LGBT community.

“So first of all, you want to be safe. It’s easy to say in Canada, be (your) authentic self and dress how you want to express yourself,” she said. “But I know there are many places around the world that still lead to tragic consequences.”

The world’s first-ever Pride House, aimed at providing a safe space for LGBT athletes, their families and fans, opened in Canada during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia.

“We also think the Tokyo Games will serve as the turning point for the sports industry to squarely face this issue,” said Gon Matsunaka, president of Pride House Tokyo.

“While I understand social change usually takes place in a gradual manner, I personally think the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics are an opportunity for us to step on the gas and accelerate the process of change,” he said.

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