A gay swimmer who’d pinned his hopes on representing Jamaica at the Tokyo Olympics has had his dreams dashed.
Michael Gunning was raised in the UK and previously represented Great Britain, but he switched to representing Jamaica (the country of his father’s birth) in 2016.
Since making his international debut for the Caribbean island at the 2017 World Championships, Gunning set national records in the 200m butterfly as well as the 200m and 400m freestyle events. He had his sights firmly set on the 2020 Olympics.
However, a combination of factors has derailed those plans, as he set out in a blog post yesterday.
“On Friday night, I was hit by some heart-breaking news that has unfortunately left me feeling shocked, gutted and extremely emotional,” Gunning began.
“Some dreams are simply not meant to come true… and the words I’ve been struggling to say out loud are… ‘I have not made the Olympic Team this Summer.’
Gunning is based in the England and last year’s pandemic seriously disrupted his training.
“I know the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games has been detrimental to many athletes all over the world, but after I gained the ‘B’ consideration qualifying time last year, I was really hoping that I’d receive the equal/fair opportunity to compete with the rest of the world this Summer, but unfortunately FINA have made the harsh decision to only allocate Jamaica one ‘Universality Place’ for the Games.”
Athletes have the best chance of qualifying for an event if they hit the ‘A’ (Automatic) qualifying time. Countries can send two athletes who achieve this, per event.
Beyond this, world aquatics sports body FINA allocates a limited number of ‘Universality Places’ to small countries who haven’t hit the ‘A’ level but can send their best athlete, provided the individuals have achieved enough points in FINA-qualifying tournaments.
Universality places are designed to allow smaller nations with less-developed swimming programs to build out the sport through representation at the Olympics. FINA regularly gives these countries one Universality Place for men and one for women.
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Because Gunning was based in the UK but was representing Team Jamaica, he says he was not allowed to be assisted at facilities used by potential Team GB swimmers.
This left him, “training solo with no coach for 28 weeks during the UK lockdown, and I was further denied access to multiple FINA qualifying competitions (inside and outside the UK) due to government laws and ‘terms and conditions’ of international athletes.”
“To top everything off, the federation at FINA changed the qualifying standard of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games, and replaced the 2020 FINA Points System with a new ‘FINA 2021 Points Scale’, that resulted in my overall points being reduced (by 17 points) in the 200M Butterfly event,” said Gunning.
“I’ve been ranked Number 1 in Jamaica since 2019, and my ultimate aim this year was to achieve the automatic qualifying time set by FINA, but due to the lack of access and opportunity that was given to me, I only had one chance of performing during this cycle (at the Glasgow Swim Meet in June), and the pressure was too much for me to handle.
“With Jamaica’s support, and well over 3 weeks ago, I wrote two heartfelt letters to FINA explaining my situation and asking them to consider giving Jamaica another universality place for the Games, in line with the IOC’s promise (and core values) to athletes with the postponement of Tokyo, but unfortunately, I’ve had no response.”
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FINA confirmed the number of Universality Places it was allocating last Friday (July 1).
Gunning ended by saying, “I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has supported me on my Tokyo Olympic journey. My fight for diversity, equality and inclusion in sport will always be at the forefront of what I do, and my journey is far from over!
“I would have loved to create history this Summer and be the first openly gay Caribbean swimmer at the Olympics, but instead, I will be watching the Olympics and my friends, teammates and training partners in awe, as they do us all proud.”
Representing Jamaica in the swimming in Tokyo will be Alia Atkinson (in the women’s events). Because Atkinson achieved the ‘A’ qualifying time, FINA has awarded one universality spot for the men. This has now been awarded to Keanan Dols. Dols achieved his time in April within a time trial swim, while Gunning’s FINA points from 2019-2020 were reduced in the new 2021 Scoring system.
In an email to Queerty, Gunning said, “I really hoped FINA would consider my unique situation as an international swimmer living in the UK, and help to make the qualification changes for the postponed 2021 Olympics fair and equitable as possible.
“I’m proud to have inspired so many athletes in my journey so far, and I knew if I was able to swim in Tokyo, it would give a better chance of supporting substantive structural change in swimming worldwide.”
Besides his swimming, Gunning also featured on the Courtney Act-hosted dating reality TV show, The Bi Life. He came out as gay on the show in 2018.
Jamaica has a reputation for being one of the most homophobic countries in the world, and gay sex is still illegal between men. Gunning told the BBC last October he’d had a “few negative comments” and homophobic remarks from people who disagree with him representing Jamaica, but said the reaction in the country had been “99.9% positive”.
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Among those to commiserate with Gunning was the Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Denise Lewis, who said on Instagram, “Gutted for you Michael. I know how much this lifelong dream meant to you ❤️ Don’t give up dreaming 🤗😘”. Another Olympian, former swimmer Becky Adlington added, “Sending love as always Michael. I’m excited for your next chapter as I know it’s going to be amazing x”
Today, Gunning posted to Twitter, “Feel completely overwhelmed by all the love & support yesterday 💙 I wouldn’t be where I am today without you all & my journey is far from over… My fight for diversity, equality & inclusion will always be at the forefront of what I do & I’m excited to see what’s next 🚀🌈✨ MG x”