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Team GB's Bosworth urges sport stars to come out publicly

Tom Bosworth competed in the Men's 20km race walk in the Rio Olympics, representing Great Britain. BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON -- Tom Bosworth wants more top gay sports stars to feel comfortable enough to follow his example and come out publicly.

The British race walker revealed his sexuality on UK national radio two years ago and has since become an unofficial spokesman for his country's sporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] community.

But as he prepares to compete for a medal at the track and field World Championships in the 20 kilometers on a historic course along The Mall between Buckingham Palace and Admiralty Arch Sunday, few other active athletes have risked telling the world they are gay.

"I saw Manchester United teaming up with Stonewall [an LGBT charity]," said Bosworth, who remains the only athlete on the British team to have come out publicly. "That's a big statement for a club like United to do that. We need more of that, and I applaud them.

"Sport needs to catch up -- slowly but surely we are getting there. Of course, coming out shouldn't be something [that you have to do] and the more people do, slowly it will not be news any more.

"In the rest of society, especially in the UK, you don't need to come out. No one is going to care at all. It shows that sport needs to catch up. Big time."

Soccer is by far the biggest and highest profile sport in Europe, and much of the rest of the world. It dominates in the UK, too, but no male professional player has come out while playing in England since Justin Fashuna in 1990.

Former England women's captain Casey Stoney -- a much lower-profile player -- also came out in 2014, and it is telling that when a referee in the sixth tier of the British game came out last week it made widespread headlines.

Ryan Atkin, the first openly gay professional referee in the British game, will also operate as a fourth official in the Football League this season, but that is the least visible of the officiating roles on matchdays.

Many soccer fans will be unaware of race walking, which is low profile even in track and field terms, but Bosworth has been working to help other sports and the British government improve equality for athletes and tackle LGBT issues.

"I know the FA are working positively to try to change things but you can't force somebody to make a decision to come out, and the FA realise that," he said. "I follow that situation regularly and have some contact with them to try to help in any way I can.

"It's a difficult one. It's people's lives, regardless of whether they are a footballer or involved in another sport. It needs to be looked at very carefully.

"I hope as society and sport keeps moving forward we will eventually get there and big high-profile sports people in the biggest sports will come out."

The effect of Bosworth coming out publicly has been much bigger than he expected, and he is an eloquent spokesman on LGBT issues.

"I have spoken in parliament to the culture, media and sport committee about my experiences since then," said the 27-year-old who can walk five kilometers in under 19 minutes, faster than most people could run it. "It was an honour to be asked to do that, but it shows the impact that somebody who wasn't high-profile at all. It can have a huge impact. That makes me very proud."

Bosworth choose to open up about his sexuality publicly to avoid any potential disruption to his preparations for the Rio Olympics last year.

He had been bullied at school because he was gay, even having his head smashed through a window by a gang of teenagers.

But there had been no issue with other athletes who knew he was gay and the reaction to Bosworth coming out to the public was positive enough that he felt comfortable enough to propose to his partner, Harry, in Rio.

"I wanted to go into the Olympic Games with no concerns that if I were to be a tweet up of me and my now fiancée, people would start commenting on it or it would become a story," the athlete said.

"I had been very cautious about coming out to my friends, family, of course. I had some bad experiences at school with things like bullying, but it just made me stronger. I said 'I'm not going to let this affect me at all' and now I'm in this position -- I can make a difference -- I feel like there is a bit of responsibility on me to do that.

"I'm so glad I came out publicly. It was a weight off my shoulders I didn't even realise I had. I was out with my family, friends, training group, teammates and I didn't think it would change anything. My teammates in the British team have always been very supportive.

"But perhaps, sub-consciously it did. It meant I could be myself and perform even better. I went into the Olympics 37th ranked and finished sixth, and broke the British record. Perhaps I was one percent more focussed on training.

"I would recommend to any athlete, if they are in the right place in their life and thinking about coming out. I still get messages saying 'your story means a lot to me' or 'I hope one day I can do what you did'. I had no idea the impact it would have."