Several Dutch Olympic champions, including openly gay swimmer Johan Kenkhuis, take part in this year’s Amsterdam gay pride canal parade to promote acceptance and tolerance of LGBT people in sport. Adrian Tippetts reports.

On Saturday August 1st, over a million people will descend on Amsterdam for the city’s annual gay pride canal parade. But one addition to the party armada makes this year’s event extra-special.

One of the barges will feature several of the Netherlands’ top sporting personalities, including Dutch Olympic champions, such as swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband, hockey player Minke Booij speed skater, Jochem Uytdehaage, and a number of professional footballers. The initiative, the brainchild of openly gay swimmer Johan Kenkhuis, aims to promote acceptance and tolerance of LGBT people in sport.

“It is fantastic that such a large group of top sports stars make this statement about the acceptance of homosexuality in Dutch sport,” Kenkhuis said to Dutch newspaper het Parool.

A silver medallist in the 4×100 m freestyle at the 2004 Olympics, Kenkhuis, now 29, won a string of championship titles during his decade-long career. His sexuality, which he was always open about, was never an issue to his team-mates. The press finally picked the story up when he casually mentioned in an interview that his boyfriend was also in Athens to support him.

He believes the issue of homophobia within top level sport – even football – is exaggerated and this hasn’t been communicated enough to the general public.

He told PinkNews: “In sports, especially at the highest level, it is all about winning, teamwork and fair play. You need your team-mates, your coach, the audience and even your competitors to win that gold medal; you can’t do it alone. That’s why we have to accept and respect all players for who they are. That’s an attitude that feels natural to all top athletes, but is never really brought to people’s attention.

“I initiated this project to do just this, and inspire the public to adopt these values, too. Homosexuality in sports at our level has never really been an issue. Of course, in some areas there’s still work to be done, but that’s why we are coming together on August 1st, to start make that change. It is about showing respect to each other to achieve victory: nothing else matters.”

Johan is keeping tight-lipped about which soccer players are sailing with him. “The players we invited reacted spontaneously and thought it was a great initiative,” he said.

The pressure on anyone in the limelight to guard their private life is great. While the gay community is keen to find role models, and celebrity-obsessed paparazzi go to great lengths for a story, Johan makes a plea for all sides to respect the athlete’s wishes when it comes to personal matters.

“It is always up to the athlete to be open about something that is private. Somehow, public figures are expected to tell all about their private lives. Why should they? This is no-one else’s business. Athletes are in the media because of their sporting performance and achievements, not because of their sexuality or other characteristics, right?”

Adrian Tippetts is a PR consultant and journalist, writing among others for Winq magazine in the Netherlands.