Gay Olympic diving champion Matthew Mitcham has encouraged gay Australian Football League (AFL) players to feel safe and open about their sexuality.

Mitcham was speaking several months after AFL player Jason Akermanis wrote in a newspaper column that gay footballers should stay in the closet.

The diving champion, 22, accused Akermanis of being “narrow-minded” for the remarks.

Mitcham told the Herald Sun: “If their environment allows them to feel comfortable enough to come out, I see absolutely no reason why not.

“All the footy codes have been doing so much work to stamp out homophobia in their sports, and I think it’s brilliant and such a proactive thing on their part.”

Although a gay Olympic athlete is not new, few sporting figures have come out.

But Mitcham, who came out in 2008 just before winning a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, said he embraces his sexuality.

He said: “It’s a part of me that I love and enjoy and I like being known as gay. I see it as something positive, so it’s just another positive thing to be known as.”

Mitcham believes the backlash against Akermanis’ column should urge gay men to not be afraid of keeping their “secret”.

He added: “The reaction [Akermanis] got from that has pretty much vindicated to everyone his comments were unfounded, his own, and really quite narrow-minded and probably wrong.

“Even his own football club said they don’t hold the same opinion as him. He has come out and said a couple of things and people are now saying, ‘What are you doing?’ People are deciding to ignore him.”

Mitcham ridiculed the column regarding the alleged “outing” of gay footballers after Akermanis wrote: “The world of AFL is not ready for it. To come out is unnecessary for a lot of reasons.”

In support of a campaign marking the International Day Against Homophobia, nearly 30 AFL footballers and coaches have signed up to help the scheme.