Omar McLeod: Champion Hurdler, Sprinter — and Centre of an “Is He Gay?” Controversy

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What do Omar McLeod, Don Quarrie and Usain Bolt have in common? Well, all of them share the distinction of being Jamaican, Olympic gold medal-winning sprinters.

However, Omar McLeod has a problem — Quarrie and Bolt have indisputably cool names. Quarrie sounds like quarry, which suggests pursuit, and his given name is Don, for goodness sake! Mr Bolt, meanwhile, has a given name so distinctive that — much like Beyoncé, or the late Prince — any mention of it brings only one person to mind; and a surname that inspired his famous pose (and yes, I can see you doing it, you big child).

Omar McLeod’s less than cool or distinctive name isn’t the only disadvantage he has to contend with. Standing 5 feet 10.5 inches tall and at just 25 years of age, at the peak of his powers, the world should be his oyster. A second Olympic gold is a very realistic prospect, particularly as he’s taken on Tony Ross, son of hurdling legend Wilbur Ross, as his coach at his Florida base. So far, so good — but the bad news doesn’t stem from the man himself.

When he won his 110m hurdle gold medal in Rio de Janeiro 2016, the response from many of his compatriots was instant — and not universally positive, to say the least. In sharp contrast to the reaction to the victories of Messrs. Quarrie and Bolt, a nasty but loud minority expressed contempt at Omar McLeod’s victory, because they disapproved of his reaction to it.

The most notorious incident was the response of an employee of Lasco, using an official social media account belonging to the major food manufacturer and distributor. In reply to then Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s celebratory question about what Omar McLeod’s victory brought to mind, this person said “a fish.” Fish is a widely used homophobic slur in Jamaica.

omar mcleod gay or not who cares
Omar McLeod from an interview about his love of London and Londoners.

The inevitable row that erupted as a result of this saw said employee fired and many of Jamaica’s great and good condemning the bigotry that this comment revealed and incited. All the while, Omar McLeod himself has maintained a dignified silence on the matter, preferring, as his mother Arnella Knight Morris, put it, to concentrate on the positive and ignore haters.

What does all this tell us about Jamaica and Omar McLeod himself? This non-Jamaican writer can do little more than speculate. Whether he’s gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, exploring or whatever, the man’s sexuality has precisely nothing to do with his great achievements, which are likely to be multiplied in years to come, given he’s only twenty-five years old.

McLeod has remained silent about the whole controversy. This is not only his inalienable right but also a tried and tested strategy. Mr doesn’t mean the chatter will go away — indeed, it will fuel the condemnation of some and the righteous indignation of others — but it does mean that he retains the power his performances confer on him to communicate all he wishes to say.

IAAF Inside Athletics with Omar McLeod

Ato Boldon talks to Omar McLeod for IAAF Inside Athletics

But what if that power deserts him, through injury, illness, or younger, hungrier rivals? Will this render him more vulnerable to gossip? Would the world forget, and if it did, would this be worse? Oscar Wilde famously quipped that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I’m not sure Omar McLeod would agree, but it could prove unpleasant for him to find out the truth of those words the hard way.

In the years and decades to come, Messrs. Quarrie and especially Bolt will be remembered for their remarkable athletic achievements. Some will question Quarrie’s failure to win Olympic gold in his favourite event and Jamaica’s poor to non-existent drug testing regime at the height of Bolt’s success, but this scepticism will be buried in mountains of positive memories. We can only hope that Omar McLeod’s on-track heroics alongside his current 12.90 seconds world record time will be the prevailing narrative, and not the controversy over whether he is gay, or has a boyfriend.

Professional and elite sport has a small but growing band of gay role models who are out, including the legendary Colin Jackson, a high-profile athlete of Jamaican parentage, whose hurdling world record stood for a decade. However, Jackson waited until he was no less than fifty — twice Omar McLeod’s current age — before coming out, having denied being gay publicly at least twice before then. Attitudes need to move fast, whatever the hurdles.

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