The shock decision by rugby union player Gareth Thomas to announce that he is gay has triggered speculation that other sports stars might come out. Thomas is Wales's most-capped player and a former British and Irish Lions captain. The fact that he has confirmed his sexuality while still playing the game has been praised by gay rights campaigners.
Yesterday the 6ft 3in, 16-stone rugby star said he hoped he could make a difference to others struggling with their sexuality. "I just want to thank everyone for the amazing response I have received, on behalf of me, my family and friends," Thomas said. "I hope that by saying this I can make a big difference to others in my situation."
But he said he did not want to be known as a "gay rugby player" and hoped people would treat his sexuality as "irrelevant" to his career. "What I choose to do when I close the door at home has nothing to do with what I have achieved in rugby," he said. "I'd love for it, in 10 years' time, not to even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: 'So what?'"
Thomas, who came on as a substitute for his team Cardiff Blues as they lost 23-7 to Toulouse in the Heineken Cup quarter-final yesterday, said the secret of his sexuality was like a "ticking bomb" which he had tried to suppress. "I just couldn't ignore it any more," he told the Daily Mail.
"It is very positive Gareth has come out while he is still an active player," said gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. "Many of the sports people who have declared their homosexuality have tended to do so after their careers are over.
"Rugby is a very macho sport and has traditionally had a very robust he-man, heterosexual image so it is really great that he has had the guts to be honest with himself and his fans. Hopefully this will ease the way for other gay and bisexual players to also come out."
There was overwhelming support for Thomas on internet fan sites and in online chatrooms. Many said they were not surprised. In the Welsh rugby community, Thomas's sexuality has been the subject of gossip for more than a decade.
Delme Parfitt, who co-wrote Thomas's autobiography, predicted the player would endure catcalls at matches. "Thomas is almost certainly going to have to turn a deaf ear to the odd wolf-whistle, or worse, homophobic insult," Parfitt wrote in the Western Mail. "But the truth is, those barbs were already coming his way long before he decided to go public."
Yesterday Thomas received the full backing of both the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and Cardiff.
"He is most probably one of the most popular players among his peers," said Roger Lewis, WRU group chief executive. "While Gareth's private life is entirely irrelevant to his career as an international sportsman it would be remiss of the WRU not to remind him of the high esteem in which he is held in the game in Wales at a time when he has decided to bring such personal reflections to public notice."
Robert Norster, Cardiff Blues chief executive, said: "Gareth Thomas is a credit to Cardiff Blues who has truly brought honour to the jersey as a formidable player and a strong leader. His private life is his own concern and we will continue to acknowledge him for the qualities he brings to the squad as a player and an individual who exemplifies the values of commitment, determination and fair play we expect from our team."
Thomas said he decided to go public about his sexuality to "send a positive message" to other gay people, especially young people considering a career in sport. "It has been really tough for me, hiding who I really am, and I don't want it to be like that for the next young person who wants to play rugby, or some frightened young kid," he said.
A supporter of the children's charity NSPCC, Thomas added: "I don't know if my life is going to be easier because I'm out, but if it helps someone else, if it makes one young lad pick up the phone to Childline, then it will have been worth it."
He said he knew from the age of 16 or 17 that he was gay but could not accept it and feared his sexuality would affect his playing career. He made up stories about girls to fit in with his male friends and felt he was sometimes overly aggressive as he played the straight man.
Thomas, who said he was never attracted to a team-mate, said rugby was his "saviour" as playing allowed him to escape from his personal confusion.
But he realised in summer 2006 that he could no longer live a lie. He told his wife, Jemma, that he was gay and felt as if his life was "falling apart" as his four-year marriage broke down. He recalled how he broke down in tears in the changing rooms of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, after playing for Wales in November 2006 and confided his secret to coach Scott Johnson. Thomas said: "After keeping it secret for so long, I felt a huge rush of relief. Scott said: 'Right, I've got to speak now to three or four players in the Welsh team because you need the boys to surround you and support you. You can't cope with this on your own,' and he was right.
"He told two of my team-mates, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams, and as I sat in the bar waiting for them, I was absolutely terrified, wondering what they were going to say. But they came in, patted me on the back and said: 'We don't care. Why didn't you tell us before?'"
He admitted cheating on Jemma with male partners and said he considered suicide as he felt so "horrible and guilty". He said he still loved his estranged wife, who he describes as "the nicest person in the world".
Thomas's decision to come out as a gay man is unusual but not unprecedented. Earlier this year Irish hurling star Dónal Óg Cusack, 32, announced he was gay. Welsh rugby Referee Nigel Owens came out in 2007. The same year, after his retirement from the US NBA basketball league, John Amaechi confirmed that he was gay in his memoir, Man In The Middle.
However, homosexuality is still considered taboo in many sports. Tatchell drew a comparison between rugby and football. "It is interesting that a couple of rugby and ex-rugby players have come out in recent years but still not a single professional football player," Tatchell said. "However, given there are 500 professional football players, statistically about 50 of them are probably gay or bisexual yet none have felt able to be open about their sexuality. Quite a few fear negative reactions from team-mates and fans and others are anxious they might lose sponsorship. Others feel their clubs would not be supportive."
SO, do you reckon there'll be a domino effect with more players coming out before retirement? For context, Rugby is very macho, but nowhere near as homophobic as football - still he's very brave for coming out.