8 Monday, September 16, 2019 02:37

Wales legend Gareth Thomas is a true hero

The word hero is much overused in sport. And there is nothing particularly heroic about getting HIV — it can happen to anyone, given the right circumstances.To talk about it, however. To go public, as a gay man and an already very public figure? That is a different matter. Gareth Thomas’ decision to break ground and admit living with HIV for a number of years is a landmark moment for men and sport.

He has spoken about ending the stigma associated with the illness. Yet what he is challenging, and not for the first time, is the many taboos that exist around male health and male sexuality.

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As a brilliant performer and captain for Wales and the British and Irish Lions, he remains the most high-profile sportsman in this country to make that statement. Until Thomas came forward, figure skater John Curry was the personification of a gay man in sport.Thomas, a legendarily combative full back whose 100 caps for Wales stood as a record at the time, challenged preconceptions of masculinity and what a gay man could be.

Now he is challenging the myths around HIV.Thomas says he is fitter than ever, fitter even than when he played rugby.It is an important message, as it was in 1987 when Princess Diana shook hands with an AIDS victim, without the protective barrier of gloves. There is still so much fear. Even Thomas admits thinking confirmation of his illness was a death sentence.

There are a lot of fictions around HIV to be confronted.And while the support for Thomas on Sunday, as he looked healthy and athletically toned taking part in an Ironman event in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, was heartening, risks of being this nakedly honest remain.‘One of the bravest people I know,’ said former Welsh team-mate Shane Williams.

Yet last November, Thomas was assaulted in Cardiff city centre, in what was judged a homophobic attack. Not everyone will be as positive as those on the sidelines on Sunday. The most recent revelation about his illness came as the result of blackmail, Thomas taking control of his destiny and his narrative, rather than being flushed out as if in shame, with a lurid headline.

.The stigmas Thomas speaks of would not be present if society was as understanding of homosexuality and HIV as we might complacently believe.Thomas is still out, on a limb. There has never been an out, gay, active male footballer in this country. There remains the fear.....

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