Chelsea FC – Official Club Magazine (May 2016) - Extracts published with kind permission of Chelsea FC and Trinity Mirror Publishing - Interview by David Antill
The eight-time world champion powerlifter explains how he came to follow the Blues and discusses the fight against discrimination in sport…
You were a guest of the club at last month’s game against Stoke – late equaliser aside, did you enjoy your day?
It was disappointing we couldn’t hold on for the win, but an amazing experience in other ways. I was walking around clutching my programme which I got signed by Bobby Tambling. Roy Bentley was there as well and it was fantastic to meet two huge club legends. I spent the afternoon talking to Bobby and he was giving me a whole history lesson about how the ground has developed – it was brilliant. He and his wife also had the company of one of the club-’s longest-standing supporters in the form of my best friend, Roger, who has followed Chelsea for 57 years.
How long have you supported the Blues for?
It’s just five years for me and it is through Roger that I got into it. I love live football but hadn’t watched it for quite some time when he persuaded me I should come to the Bridge. I live in Devon and work between there and London. I also lived in the capital for 14 years, so I have an affinity with the city and a London club was the most sensible thing. Roger took me along and I never looked back!
My first game was Chelsea versus Manchester United in the Premier League in March 2011 and the atmosphere for that, of course, is really fierce. It was amazing and once you get that bug, there is no turning back.
Are you a frequent visitor to the Bridge?
I have been recently – perhaps between 10 and 12 games a season and I’ve been on the higher end of that this season because I have had a knee injury nagging me since the autumn. The nature of my competition is that it goes in peaks and troughs and when it’s a quiet spell I might get along to three games in a row.
Can you pick a highlight of your time watching Chelsea?
The 2012 Champions League victory goes without saying. A great moment for me was away to Manchester United in the FA Cup the following season. We drew 2-2 at Old Trafford on my first visit to the stadium. It was one of those games where a draw feels like a win because we were 2-0 down at half-time. Eden Hazard pulled one back and then Ramires levelled it up and it was just great to be celebrating with thousands of away fans at Old Trafford. We brought them back to Stamford Bridge when Petr Cech pulled off the best save I have ever seen and Demba Ba scored the winner with a very weird sort of overhead kick.
Before you started coming to Chelsea, were you a fan of football generally?
I love live sport in general. My family are football fans and I also watched a lot of rugby union in the past, particularly Leicester Tigers, who I played with for six years. I was really knocking on the door of the first team when I suffered a serious knee injury.
You have certainly gone on to some impressive sporting achievements since then. Tell our readers a little bit about them.
I had a bit of a break from sport after my injury, but I have always lifted heavy weights in short repetitions – squats and deadlifts. I was spotted by a weightlifting coach called Jim Atkinson, who went on to become my first coach, while I was in the gym and he pointed out that what I was lifting could put me into competitive sport.
My first competition was the Gay Games in 1998 and I won a silver medal, which gave me a lot of belief. I compete in the World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation and in 2004 I qualified for my first World Championships in Atlanta, coming away with a silver when I don’t think I was even ranked in the top 10. The following year I won my first world title in Turin and I now have eight world titles in total.
Do you think your prowess as a rugby player and seeing those ambitions thwarted by injury drove you on to success in a different discipline?
I always thought I would play for England. I wanted to represent my country and test myself in international sport. I’m incredibly grateful that I got a second opportunity, in powerlifting. It’s an amateur sport but people who do it take it very seriously. To win at world level you obviously have to be very professional in the way you go about things. I’m a far better power-lifter than I was a rugby player, I have to be honest!
You are an openly gay sportsman – can you explain what that has been like in your field of sport?
I came out in my personal life in the gap between rugby and powerlifting. I was faced with a choice and made a decision that I wanted to pursue my power-lifting career openly and be up front with people. Some people were quite dismissive of me when I came into powerlifting – the idea of an openly gay man qualifying for the world finals was pretty much non-existent.
Back then there were very few athletes, especially men, who were openly gay and I realised I had an opportunity to break that taboo. I was very affected by the story of Justin Fashanu and the way he was treated. He died in 1998, just as I started to get back into my sport. It was a great motivation to me in my early days as a powerlifter.
I’ve had incidents which have been handled in various ways. People have tried to sledge me with homophobic remarks backstage, but it has totally backfired on them because it has given me what I needed to go on the platform and win another gold medal. I’ve always tried to channel my efforts into my performance because whatever happens, nobody can affect the way I perform as an athlete, only I can influence that.
I must admit that my own sport has been incredibly accepting over the years. I am a Global Ambassador for the Federation of Gay Games and I would just like to say how supportive they have been throughout my career.
The Stoke match was our Game for Equality, which highlighted how Chelsea fights discrimination of all kinds. What did you make of that and the efforts made in this area in sport in general?
A huge amount of progress has been made in sport generally. You have openly gay athletes who compete in elite sport such as Tom Daley, Gareth Thomas and Robbie Rogers. In football, generally, it still seems to be a bit of a taboo area, although I was part of the original homophobia working group at the FA a decade ago and, since then, the advances are clear to see.
You can see the developments that have clearly taken place at Chelsea in recent years to help fight discrimination, in terms of stadium regulations and the advert in the programme at every match. You also have organisations such as the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN), which is behind the new Chelsea LGBT fan group, liaising and working with clubs to raise the profile and work against homophobia – all that has happened recently and it is laying positive foundations.
Chelsea are making a concerted effort to connect with the LGBT community, which is very much appreciated and it is important for us to be able to help fans understand what the concerns and the issues really are. Chelsea are doing a wonderful job in supporting that and long may it continue so the group continues to grow.
I have witnessed homophobic abuse towards players at football matches and wondered how that person would react if they knew the person next to them was gay. I could have confronted them on the spot to tell them I’m gay and I don’t like what they are doing, or reported them to stewards and get them banned, but I thought it would be better to try and connect with the club I support. This way we can raise the issues and maybe we can gradually change the attitudes of people who would make those comments so they think about the harm it can cause. There are more important things in life than trying to single somebody out for being gay.