TORONTO - Olympic gymnast Kris Burley remained in the closet throughout his career.
The international sporting environment was too hostile a place for a gay athlete.
"From my perspective, to be the best athlete that you can be, and to reach your objectives, you have to be able to be yourself," Burley said. "And my personal experience is . . . it wasn't a comfortable and open environment for me. And it was really challenging. And I know that's shared by a lot of athletes that have similar stories."
When Toronto hosts the Pan American Games next summer in Toronto, Burley said it will mark the first time the organizing committee has worked in partnership with the local gay community.
"That sends a real message I think, a real leadership message to set a higher standard for inclusion," Burley said.
The Truro, N.S., native was the emcee for Friday's unveiling of PrideHouse Toronto's plans for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
They include a "celebration zone" in the city's Church-Wellesley Village, with family activities such as pick-up sports games.
The 519 Church Street Community Centre will be turned into a Pan Am pavilion, with "a safe space for people to watch the Games as well as celebrate athletes and inclusion in sports," said PrideHouse spokesperson Ryan Tollofson.
There will be a PrideHouse presence at other Games sites such as Nathan Phillips Square and the CNE grounds, with 16 ambassadors from across Ontario, who have been trained to be able to address questions about the importance of inclusion in sport.
There has never been a PrideHouse at a Pan Am Games, Tollofson said. Eleven Pan American countries still criminalize LGBTQ activity, PrideHouse Toronto said.
"We want to set an example for what inclusion in sport can be," Tollofson said. "We're very fortunate in Canada to have a country where we have a lot of rights and protections as gay folks, as LGBTQ people, and so we want to be able to demonstrate that to the world. The main goal of PrideHouse is to make the Pan Am Games the most inclusive multi-sport Games in history."
Burley competed for Canada at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and then the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, retiring that same year.
The former gymnast said that while Canada is an international leader in LGBTQ rights, sports still remains behind other areas of society in terms of inclusion.
"You can see that from all the media that comes from every athlete that comes out, beginning with (NBA player) Jason Collins right through to Michael Sam (the first publicly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL) and some of the other athletes," Burley said.
Toronto's PrideHouse for the Pan Am Games, he said, isn't about a "bricks-and-mortar building where people say 'OK, that's where the gays are going to participate in the Games.'"
It's also about including Toronto communities, as well as encouraging the LGBTQ community to participate fully in the Games.
"We're not quite there yet in sport, I think we're a little bit behind," Burley said. "But this is a good step in the right direction, and it sets a good precedent and I'm hoping that future organizing committees with all adopt the same thing, and it will just be standard that the LGBTQ component and diversity in general gets incorporated as part of every Games going forward."
The Pan Am Games are July 10-26, while the Parapan Am Games are Aug. 7-15.