Hurdling star Ethan Akanni is preparing to take the Commonwealth Games by storm this summer while championing the rights of LGBTQ+ athletes across the country. Ethan, 22, is one of Britain’s up-and-coming talents on the track, competing in the 60m and 110m hurdles, and he’s now also shining a light on his career as a gay athlete.
Hailing from Bexley, Ethan picked up athletics when he was 13-years-old - finding solace and escape in the sport in a time where he was starting to question his sexuality. Since then, he has become a beacon of hope and inspiration to young athletes up and down the country to feel comfortable in their sexuality and celebrate being true to themselves in sport.
“I knew there was something different about me when I was quite young,” said Ethan. “When I was around 13, I actually started to date some of my female friends at the time, just to throw people off my gay scent as it were! It was weird because it was an internal battle - I was like 'am I gay, am I bi, am I straight?' – I had no idea.
“Towards the end of that year, I made friends with a guy who was gay in our school pantomime. I felt a lot more comfortable because of him and I was able to talk out all these conversations that I was having with myself but in my own head. It gave me the confidence to come out to a handful of close friends.”
Ethan was able to truly express his sexuality when he went to Loughborough University in 2017 to study Sport Science, but only came out to his family in May 2019 after fully accepting who he was – and it impacted his athletics career hugely.
“When I went to university, I was able to openly be gay,” said Ethan. “University is the best place to be yourself because you're in a new environment and everyone else is new to each other too. To be my authentic self was so empowering and it felt so nice, so I realised I needed to do it in every aspect of my life which is when I came out to my family – it's genuinely one of the best things I've ever done.
“We grew up in a Christian household, and so obviously it was written that a man only lays with a woman and homosexuality is a taboo topic and not a good thing. I was worried that because of our Christian faith, my mum wouldn't accept it. I have heard stories of people being disowned by family members or being shunned or cut off, or people ignoring the fact that they came out and pretending it's not even a thing - I was worried a similar thing would happen with me.
“But I was worried for no reason - my mum was so happy and very accepting, and even a little insulted that I didn't tell her sooner! It's one of the best feelings I've ever had. It was the same with my brother too - his reaction was 'aw, yay' and he gave me a big hug! Ever since then, it's all been really nice and I could see effects seeping through into my athletics career as well. That following indoor season in 2020 was the best of my career so far. It felt like confidence was exuding from me.”
Ethan ran quicker in 2020 than he ever has before, clocking 7.81 seconds to be crowned BUCS champion over the 60m hurdles, and also won the South of England Championships - and also came third in the British Championships. Since then, he has knocked his personal best time down to 7.78, with his eyes now firmly set on Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games this year after making a huge comeback from an eight-month long hip injury.
“I haven't been to a Commonwealth Games before and I've never done an international event from the UK, so I think this year's Games will be really special,” said Ethan. “I always hear athletes saying how amazing it feels to have the crowd behind you, essentially because the British public have such a great support for their athletes. I have such fond memories at Birmingham’s track, so it would be nice to have a full circle moment at my first proper senior international championships representing my country at home - it's what's keeping me going.”
Along with his success on the track, Ethan is now hoping to inspire the next generation of athletes coming through with the support of the Athletics Pride Network. The Network was launched by UK Athletics in 2020 and aims to provide a community for LGBTQ+ people and allies to connect. The Network also seeks to raise awareness and visibility of LGBTQ+ people and issues in the sport, as well as create an environment which is open and inclusive for everyone.
The Loughborough graduate said: “Athletics is a heterosexually dominated sector, as sport is in general, which is partially why I do so much work with the Athletics Pride Network. It's good to not only create a space for those LGBTQ+ people, but also educate everyone else, so that when they do come into a sporting setting, everyone feels comfortable and can be themselves.
“When [race-walker] Tom Bosworth came out, he inspired me and helped me feel more confident within myself, and hopefully we as a Network can do that for other young athletes, and older athletes too. There weren't many gay black role models for me growing up, but there is a growing gay black community now and it's great to be a part of that.
“I only discovered [sprinter] Corinne Humphreys was part of the LGBTQ+ community when I met her, and I thought it was amazing - I was like 'it's someone that looks like me!'”
And Ethan’s journey has been supported along the way by SportsAid - backing which has made a real difference to him. “I had SportsAid support around 2017 and I was still new to the whole international stage. It was just off the back of the Europeans at Under-18s level, where I came fourth, which was my first international.
“SportsAid taught us how to present ourselves on social media, in person, doing public speaking, and gave us a lot of professional skills which I still use to this day. I also was paired with a buddy called Neil [through Royal Bank of Canada] and he was amazing. He kept in contact with me for a long time and he was very supportive.
“We had meetings every so often to keep up with each other, and that was around the time I started university so he really helped in that transition period from school and living away from home for the first time. SportsAid have helped me so much.”
You can find out more about the Athletics Pride Network - a sport-wide community for LGBTQ+ people and allies in the UK - by clicking here.