RIO DE JANEIRO — Since before the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Outsports.com has been covering gay issues in sports. The site is filled largely with coming-out stories, news analysis and slide shows of good-looking athletes.
And every two years, during the Winter and Summer Olympics, its audience traffic rises to new heights, quantifiable evidence of something often generalized and stereotyped. “Gay men love the Olympics,” Cyd Zeigler, a founder of Outsports, said in an email.
It did not take a record number of publicly out athletes competing at the Rio Games to draw the gay community’s attention. It did not take a shirtless and lubed flag-bearer from Tonga, or photographs of gymnasts on the beach, or divers taking post-plunge showers.
Those things only helped draw interest from audiences, both gay and straight. But gay men were already a reliable demographic, as demonstrated across the web, from Outsports to other sites targeted to gays that are now filled largely with photos and posts about the Olympics.
The question is why gay men love the Olympics. Theories are as varied as the gay community itself. Bruce Hayes, a 1984 gold medalist in swimming who is gay, cautioned against stereotypes.
“Gay people like sports as much as any other group of people,” said Mr. Hayes, now the managing director of health for the New York office of Edelman, a public relations firm. “There’s this perception that we don’t. Or that if we’re watching the Olympics, it’s for a reason other than watching the sports and the athletic achievements.”
But the Olympics have some unique qualities that attract gay men, several others said. Many closeted gays participated in individual sports to avoid the discomfort of team-sport culture, and the Olympics is the biggest showcase of individual sports. Mr. Hayes, too, said that being gay was a reason he gravitated toward swimming as a boy.
Also, many Olympic sports possess an outsider’s sensibility that gay men can appreciate. Many sports are filled with artistry often missing from the usual weekend sports selection on television.
And, for some, admittedly, the attraction is physical.
“A big part of it is the skin factor, for sure,” Mr. Zeigler said.
That happens across the spectrum. People gaze at the physiques of the divers in small Speedos. They marvel at the tiny bikinis on the women of beach volleyball.
What has changed is who is doing the ogling. More than ever, and more openly than ever, it seems to be everyone.
“The mainstream media is finally catching up to the gays in their public admiration of athletes’ bodies, male and female,” said Jim Buzinski, the other Outsports founder. “Now everyone is doing the ‘hottest bods’ post, encroaching on what had been our turf. Plus, men are more and more open about showing off, especially on social media, and don’t care who’s looking.”
Outsports found that, at last count, 49 athletes are publicly out. That is about twice as many as at the 2012 London Games. Eleven of them, none from the United States, are male.
The popular British diver Tom Daley, a two-time medalist, is openly gay and a bit of an icon, and his boyfriend is a bit of a celebrity, too. Brazil’s Rafaela Silva, who won a gold medal in judo, came out publicly two days later. A female Brazilian rugby player proposed to her girlfriend at the medal stand.
“There is something cool happening with this Olympics,” Mr. Hayes said. “There are quite a few out gay athletes competing. You used to never hear about that or see that. There were gay people competing, but they weren’t out or written about. Slowly, there’s starting to be a realization that gays are interested in sports, that they’re actually good at sports and they can excel and achieve like anyone else.”
Add all that context — more open athletes, a culture gaining acceptance and traction in a growing number of countries — and it is suddenly difficult for many to keep their eyes off these Olympics, the ultimate sports spectacle.
The shirtless, well-lubed flag-bearer from Tonga became an instant sensation and has since made the news media rounds, including at NBC’s “Today” show. (Interview with Al Roker? Oil rub from Matt Lauer? Does it get more mainstream than that?) Members of the United States men’s gymnastics team suggested in The Wall Street Journal that they want to be objectified, perhaps by competing shirtless.
Social media lapped up the “accidental censorship” of divers taking showers between dives as television graphics covered their tiny suits, giving the illusion of full-fledged nudity.
“For some people, the Olympics is the greatest soft porn ever,” said Eric Marcus, an expert on gay history and co-writer of the autobiography of the Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis, who came out after retiring. “What’s changed is that the mainstream press is interested in these things, that gay people are comfortable talking about them, that it is now O.K. to objectify the bodies of men in a way that I don’t think that most news outlets would be comfortable objectifying women.”
In a twist from the past, the one news media taboo seems to be ogling women, though that does not stop it from happening. Even most lesbian sites do not have the same type of photocentric posts that those catering to gay men have. A beautiful woman carrying the Tongan flag is probably not booked on the “Today” show, and certainly not getting rubbed by the hosts.
“The objectification of women was tied to the subordination of women,” Mr. Marcus said. “There’s a different dynamic involved.”
That doesn’t keep some in the Olympic audience from seeing obvious objectification in some female uniforms, especially the bikinis worn by most beach volleyball players. Such revealing amounts of skin are not required; many women cover up on cool days and nights. One athlete from Egypt wore leggings, long sleeves and a head-covering hijab.
To suggest that they are being sexualized is often seen as an insult to competitors, men and women. Mr. Marcus compared Olympic athletes to dancers, who often dress to show off their contours. In an age when the likes of ESPN The Magazine does an annual Body Issue, featuring athletes of both sexes and all sizes in undress, such appreciation is meant for everyone’s consumption. Even The New York Times had an interactive feature of undressed athletes asking readers to guess which sport they represent.
At these Games, the South Korean men’s judo competitors got attention for showing their rippled abs. The Tongan flag-bearer, a taekwondo athlete named Pita Taufatofua, went from unrecognized to more than 130,000 Instagram followers practically overnight.
“There’s no stigma when looking at bodies when it’s the Olympics,” Mr. Marcus said. “When I look at a website that’s featuring these athletes, and the guy’s shirtless, I’m not looking at porn. I’m looking at the Olympics. You can look at Tom Daley and his diving co-partner palling around in the pool and hugging each other, in little teeny bathing suits, and it’s just watching the Olympics.”