Ethan Akanni is a rising star in British athletics. The 21-year-old sprinter burst onto the scene in February, capturing the gold medal at the British Universities & Colleges Sport Championship in the 60-meter hurdles. It was a moment of triumph for Akanni, who had gotten injured the previous year and was forced to pull out of the final. Eight days following his moment of glory in the BUCS Championships, Akanni won bronze at the British Championships, further cementing his status as one of Britain’s elite sprinters at the U23 level.
Akanni would not be at the top of his sport without displaying determination and perseverance on the track. But he also attributes his racing success to another intangible: his coming out.
In a first-person essay for SkySports, Akanni writes about how coming out as gay has given him the confidence to thrive in competition. The piece was edited by Jon Holmes as part of the Athletics Pride Network and is modeled after the coming out stories we run on Outsports.
“Initially, I only told five of my closest friends (I was gay),” Akanni writes. “However, it was Year 9… one friend accidentally mentioned it in passing, and word spread like wildfire. Before I knew it, my whole year knew that I was gay! Realising everyone was suddenly aware of my ‘secret’ was worrying but my friends all reassured me that they didn’t care that I was gay. Most of the people I knew said they either ‘had a feeling’ anyway, that it doesn’t change who I am, or that they were glad I was able to tell them.”
Prior to this year, Akanni discretely displayed his sexuality on the track. He started putting rainbow laces on his spikes and began coming out to more of his peers in college. Last summer, he says a rival coach spotted his rainbow laces, and the two started swapping stories about being gay in the athletic world.
Despite the acceptance Akanni was finding at the track and within his community, he was still closeted at home. Akanni grew up in a religious family, where he was told men were supposed to mate with women. But finally, last year, he did come out to his mom and brother, and says their support was immense.
“It was nothing like I’d imagined when I was younger. That was the best feeling, like the whole world was lifted off my shoulders,” Akanni writes.
While support for LGBTQ acceptance continues to grow in the sports arena, Akanni knows the coming out experience isn’t easy for everybody. As a young sprinter, he says he looked up to several out British Olympians, including race walker Tom Bosworth and javelin thrower Shelley Holyrod, who recently spoke with Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler about her excruciating experience battling COVID-19.
Ultimately, Akanni says he wouldn’t be where he is without the embrace of his social circle, but knows others aren’t as fortunate. That is why LGBTQ visibility is so important: so people know they aren’t alone.
“A lot of people seem to think it’s easy for anyone in my generation who’s gay to come out now,” Akanni writes. “But in reality, it’s all over the place – some don’t struggle so much, but others are still really afraid. Many always knew they were gay or lesbian but didn’t feel able to tell anyone until they came to university. It depends on the person and their circumstances.
“For me, the support, love and respect I got from my school friends after coming out to them was so great that I could do nothing but embrace it. This made it 100 times easier to eventually become comfortable in my own skin.”
Now that Akanni is out, young gay athletes everywhere now have another role model. That can’t be discounted, especially since Akanni says coming out helped propel him to the gold.