Coming out in the world of Sport

From AFL Grand Finals to opening ceremonies, Luke Pellegrini, Head of Games Operations and Sports Services at the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), has attended some of the world’s most high-profile sporting events. But how did he find being a gay man in the world of sport? We spoke to Luke as part of our Outstanding 50 LGBTI Leaders of 2018 initiative, to find out
You started your career in a traditional corporate law firm and then made the switch to AFL SportsReady before you joined the AOC. What prompted you to make that change? Did you find the transition difficult?

Moving into the sports industry was actually easier than I thought it would be. You hear a lot of talk about the hyper-masculine nature of sport codes and in particular the footy codes – so I was initially concerned about how I would be perceived as an openly gay man in the sports industry – but the reality was that it was welcoming from the outset.

I’ve always loved sport and have a voracious appetite for sports news and data, and continually found myself putting down the Australian Financial Review to read the sports section of the Herald Sun. You always hear the mantra that you should ‘follow your passion’ and so after six years of being a lawyer, I decided to make the transition out of the corporate world – so I enrolled and completed a Masters in Sports Management and then made the switch across to the AFL.

I have found that being a sports nerd and really enjoying the subject matter of what you deal with each day, has really helped me along the way.

In 2016 you joined the AOC as Manager for Sport Policy and Selection, and then moved into your current role as Head of Games Operations and Sport Services, tell us a little bit about the last two years, has it been challenging?

Yes, it has been very challenging – which is what keeps it very entertaining. I think the greatest challenge is the sheer size of the Olympic Games – with Australia competing in 36 summer sports and nine winter sports. All 45 of our sports have vastly different needs, governance structures, types of athletes and levels of funding. We had 422 athletes compete in Rio de Janeiro and, with the introduction of new sports like surfing and skateboarding on the Olympic Program for Tokyo, we anticipate we will have almost 500 at the next games – so it is a huge production.

To add to the complexity, all of the sports need to feel like they are being serviced as the number one priority, regardless of whether they are a gold medal winning sport or not.

From a people management perspective, people might expect the AOC to run like any large corporation – but the reality is we run a very lean operating model, more similar to a small business. We have a full-time staff of about 30, so while the profile of the organisation is massive, there is sometimes an incongruence between people’s perceptions of our size and the actual reality.

Some might assume that working in sport would be a ‘blokey’ culture to work in. Has that been your experience? If so, is it challenging as a gay man to work in that sort of environment?

There’s definitely that perception out there and it is a question I get asked a lot. But for me it hasn’t been something I have really experienced first-hand. Part of the misconception I think, is that people need to appreciate that when you’re working at organisations like the AOC or AFL – you’re working at the very top level, high-performance end of sport. Stakeholders expect the highest levels of performance from the professionals as they do of the athletes.

Our brand is also very important to us and our sponsors are some of Australia’s largest and most respected companies, so we need to model our internal values on modern corporate Australia. At the top echelon of sport, it is now much more likely that any semblance of a ‘blokey culture’ would be called out and we are working hard internally (as are all of our Olympic sports) to ensure we champion diversity and inclusion to make sure that everyone feels welcome to be themselves – whether that be on the field of play, or off it. Unfortunately, at a local level, sport can still be a really challenging, non-inclusive place. There is no denying that, but hopefully, with initiatives like the AFL Pride match and National Sport Organisations backing the Marriage Equality vote, this will help the culture of inclusion that is set at the top in filtering down to lower levels, through the junior programs and even to fans on the sidelines.

You’ve attended a few Olympic Games now, both summer and winter, do you have a favourite moment?

Yes, I feel really fortunate to have been part of the Australian HQ Team in Rio de Janeiro and Pyeong Chang, so Tokyo will be my third Olympic Games. Just living and working in the Olympic Villages is pretty incredible – for a sports tragic like me to be eating dinner next to Patty Mills or Cate Campbell or even Rafa Nadal is just awesome.

One of my favourite Olympic Games moments as a viewer, would be what Matthew Mitcham did in Beijing in 2008. To stand on that 10m platform, the pressure of that final dive, with a high degree of difficulty, the world on his shoulders – to then execute that perfectly to win gold was just outstanding.

For him to be able to do that, just shows how brave and courageous he is. That was an incredible moment, not even speaking as a gay person, just as a sports lover and an Australian.

Just while we’re on this theme, what is your favourite sport and why?

(Luke laughs) I have 45 children, all of whom I love equally! Ok, I would have to say tennis, because I grew up playing it and my most impressive on-field achievement was being a ball boy for an Australian Open singles final.

You spent some time working with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community, can you tell us more about that and why that was important to you?

At AFL SportsReady we worked very closely with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community by creating a leading traineeship which involved a training and employment program for the community. One of the things I found most interesting when working in that space, was that there were a number of similar challenges that they faced as a community, that I could empathise with or had witnessed in the LGBTI community.

The biggest hurdle was to open the door and let these young people feel confident enough that they could walk through it and be proud of who they were and let their voice be heard. Through our great Indigenous mentors and employment network, we were able to provide opportunities and a support network that helped many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people achieve things that they and their families would never have thought were possible.

When you were starting out in your career, did you have any openly LGBTI role models? If so, who were they, if not who did you look up to?

Not when I was starting out in my career, no. I think 15 years ago, law firms were still a place where you didn’t really speak about your sexuality and the environment was such that you just tried to ‘fit in’. It’s great that more recently we have seen some tremendous LGBTI role models in both the corporate and sporting worlds. To pick one I would say that I am always really impressed and inspired by – I would have to say the work Daniel Kowalski has done with the Australian swimmers as the CEO of the Swimmers Association. You couldn’t meet a more humble guy, he has won four Olympic medals which is absolutely crazy but if you met him you would have to prise that information from him – because he would never lead with it and just let’s his excellent work and passion speak for itself.

He’s someone I think is really fantastic in the LGBTI community, very courageous, proud and has done so much for so many without ever asking for an accolade.

If you could meet one person, dead, alive or fictional who would it be and why?

Oh man, this is hard. There’s so many. OK from sport I’m going to say Billie Jean King – she was a pioneer in women’s sport – actually scratch that – she was a pioneer for sport in general. Just an incredible champion, who still today remains really cool. If it doesn’t have to be from sport, then I would love to have been friends with Joan Rivers because she was just the best.

This is the second time Deloitte are running the Outstanding 50 LGBTI Leaders List – how do you view the importance of initiatives like this?

I never promote myself as a gay person in sport, this is the first time I’ve ever stuck my head out in that sort of way. But the reason I am really supportive of this initiative and being part of it is that I just hate the thought of an athlete, or a fan or even a potential administrator, might feel like they couldn’t be part of the sports industry because they ‘won’t fit in’. I hope that initiatives such as this are helpful for anyone who might be considering a move into a traditionally ‘masculine’ or ‘blokey’ industry to have some insight that it isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems.

Ultimately, I believe that if people follow their passion, whatever that might be – be it sport, arts, theatre or law (God help them) then they will find success.

 

Luke is one of our Outstanding 50 LGBTI Leaders of 2018 – a list that recognises and celebrates the many LGBTI role models in business. For more on our inspirational LGBTI leaders visit our Outstanding 50 webpage, or read more interviews in the series here.


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