Job search
Job Search

People: Nigel Owens: Nobody should have to choose between living a lie and giving up their sport

At this year’s SIBEC UK, Nigel Owens MBE – the first openly gay rugby union referee – shared his very personal story with delegates, imparting the message that our words and actions may affect the people around us more strongly than we realise

Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 3
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
Nigel Owens received an MBE in 2016 for his services to sport / © Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images
Nigel Owens received an MBE in 2016 for his services to sport/ © Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

Many people tell you that life is what you make it, but I am a firm believer that life makes you at a very young age. As you get to your late teens you have probably become the person you will be for the rest of your life.”

International rugby union referee Nigel Owens is addressing a rapt audience at this year’s SIBEC UK conference at The Belfry Hotel and Resort, explaining how he came to be where he is today.

“Everyone who’s around you when you’re young has a huge influence on the person you’ll become,” he says. “The way you’re brought up, what you’re taught is right and wrong, the community you’re within, the sporting clubs you join, your coaches, the school you attend.

“It’s important that we recognise how a person’s history can shape their life, and realise the huge influence we have on the future lives of young people as parents, teachers and coaches.”

Known on the rugby field for his humour and unique style, Owens has reached the highest level of refereeing. But his journey to the top was far from smooth.

Brought up in a tiny village in West Wales with a population of just 140, Owens went to a primary school that had a total of 14 children. “It was a very old fashioned, close knit community,” he says. “All of my family, 95 per cent of the village and the surrounding villages spoke Welsh as their first language. I couldn’t speak English until I was about seven years old.”

Moving from a tiny primary school to a secondary school with 1,200 pupils was understandably difficult for Owens, and to make matters worse he became the target of a bully.

“If you’ve experienced being bullied,” he says, “you’ll know it brings a horrible sense of shame; as if you’re doing something wrong. You feel a sense of weakness.

“That’s why lots of people that are bullied don’t speak out – because you think there’s something wrong with you. When actually there’s nothing wrong with you; it’s the bully. It was a very difficult time for me and probably affected the rest of my life – it certainly affected my education. I didn’t play sport and I began playing truant in school.”

Eventually Owens moved to a different school where he was incredibly happy. He started playing rugby and at 16 started refereeing.

Feeling different
At 19 years of age, Owens’ life changed forever. He realised he was “different” from other young men of his age and felt there was something wrong with him. He found himself attracted to men, something he describes as “a totally alien feeling”.

Having been brought up in such a small village, Owens says he’d never known a gay person. His only impressions of gay people came from the camp characters in the sitcoms of the 70s – but Owens knew he wasn’t like that and didn’t want to be.

“I started having mental health issues,” he tells the audience of delegates. “Feeling down, feeling scared, worried about what would happen if people found out. What would my friends say? Would I be able to keep going to the rugby club?”

“It put me in a dark place and I started comfort eating and bingeing to cope with these feelings. As a result I put a lot of weight on.”

In an effort to lose the weight, but unwilling to address the core issue, Owens became bulimic, making himself sick three or four times a day. Owens admits that he still suffers from bulimia today, albeit not to the same extent.

Dark days
Over six years, his weight plummeted from 16 stone to 11. Wanting to be strong again, he started going to gym, but soon became hooked on steroids, taking them regularly for the next five years until he began having suicidal thoughts.

“A huge side effect of taking steroids is the mental repercussions. So by the time I was 25 years of age I was deeply depressed, I was bulimic, I was taking steroids and I was in a very, very dark place.

“I did something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. I left a note for my mum and dad to say I couldn’t carry on living. I’ll never forgive myself for what I put them through when they woke that morning and thought they would never see their only child ever again.”

Nigel’s suicide attempt saw him rescued from a remote mountain, where he lay in a coma, having consumed a box of paracetamol.

Thankfully he survived, and realised that he couldn’t do that to his parents. However, even after this traumatic experience, Nigel was still unsure whether he should come out as gay to family, friends and colleagues.

“I felt I had to choose between living a lie in order to do the job I loved, or giving up what I loved to be true to myself. Nobody should have to make that choice. It’s only when you are truly happy in your yourself and in your place of work, that you can excel and be your best.”

Coming out
Realising that he wouldn’t be able to properly focus on or excel in refereeing until he unburdened himself of the secret he’d been carrying since he was 18, Nigel finally came out in 2005, and became the first openly gay rugby union referee. As it turned out, everyone – from his parents and friends to the Welsh Rugby Union, the players and supporters – was hugely supportive.

This overwhelming support enabled Nigel to perform to the highest level as a referee. He has currently refereed 81 international test matches, a World Cup final, six European finals, a record 108 European cups matches, a record five Pro14/ ro12 finals and 169 Pro14/Pro12 matches.

“I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of that if I hadn’t accepted who I was, and been accepted in my sport, my community and my workplace,” says Owens.

“Never underestimate the huge influence your attitude and behaviour have on people around you, whether in your sporting world or at work.”

The power of words
Owens concluded his presentation with a moving story that illustrated the power our words and actions can have on others without us even knowing.

“In 2007 I was one of two shock referees chosen for the World Cup. Although I had come out in 2005, there was nothing in the media about my being gay until I was made a World Cup referee.

“After my story had been made public, I received a letter from the mother of a 16-year-old boy. He had tried to take his own life a few months earlier and they hadn’t known why, but they had been worried he would try again.

“When it was announced that I would be a referee for the World Cup, the family were sitting around the dinner table with friends, and one of the adults said, ‘Nigel Owens, isn’t he the gay referee?’ The boy’s father answered, ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s gay. It matters that he’s good at his job. It doesn’t matter what his sexuality is’.”

After the friends left, the boy went upstairs and looked up Owens’ story. He came back down and told his parents, “I tried to take my own life for the same reason that Nigel Owens did”.

“He knew,” says Owens, “from the language spoken at that table, that now he could tell his mum and dad who he really was. If that conversation had gone differently – if his dad had said that it was a sin – then he might have acted very differently.”

“The way you say things, the way you project things, the language that you use, can all have a huge impact on the people around you. The words you use can hugely impact people that are different to you in the workplace.”

“Not only are we responsible for what we say and do in front of others; we sometimes bear more responsibility if we stand by and do nothing at all.”

SIBEC

SIBEC UK 2018 took place on 23-24 May, at the Belfry Hotel and Resort. Over 150 buyers and suppliers from the health and fitness sector gathered to take part in a series of one-to-one meetings.

SIBEC Europe will take place at the Mövenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi in Marrakech, Morocco from 7-10 November 2018.

Find out more at www.sibecevents.com

Sign up for FREE ezines & magazines
Sports jobs
Everyone Active
featured job

Swimming Teachers

Everyone Active
Salary: Competitive hourly rate
Job location: Nationwide, United Kingdom

Receptionist

Parkwood Leisure
Salary: £7.83 per hour
Location: Bristol, UK

Recreation Assistant

Parkwood Leisure
Salary: £7.10 - £8.10 per hour
Location: Bristol, UK

Duty Manager - Fitness

Lex Leisure
Salary:
Location: Nottingham, UK

Duty Manager - Fitness

Lex Leisure
Salary:
Location: Nottingham, UK

Innovation Manager - DAD

Women in Sport
Salary: £32,000 per annum
Location: London, UK

Innovation Manager - DAD

Women in Sport
Salary: £32,000 per annum
Location: London, UK

IT Service Desk Analyst

Mytime Active
Salary: £16000 - £20000 per annum
Location: Kent, England, UK

Recreation Assistant (Lifeguard)

GLL
Salary:
Location: Thornton Heath, South London

Recreation Assistant (Lifeguard)

GLL
Salary:
Location: Thornton Heath, South London
recruiting with sports management

Facilities Officer

Swim England
Salary: £31,393 - £35,700 depending upon experience
Location: Loughborough, UK

Recreation Assistant (Lifeguard)

GLL
Salary: Up to £10.20 per hour
Location: Tadworth, Surrey

Recreation Apprentice (Lifeguard)

GLL
Salary: Up to £17,806 per annum
Location: Amersham, UK

Fitness Instructor

énergie group
Salary: Competitive Salary and Benefits
Location: Loughborough, UK

Recreation Assistant

Mytime Active
Salary: Up to £7.83 per hour
Location: Kent, England, UK

Recreation Assistant (Lifeguard)

GLL
Salary: Up to £8.75 per hour
Location: Witney, Oxfordshire

General Manager

The Gym Group
Salary: up to £37,000 + c20% bonus
Location: Wealdstone, London, United Kingdom
recruiting with sports management

Club Promoter - New Gym Opening

énergie fitness
Salary: £16,826 + Uncapped Target Based Commision
Location: High Street, Dumbarton, UK

Recreation Assistant

Mytime Active
Salary: Up to £7.83 per hour
Location: Kent, England

Health Coach

Viavi:be
Salary: £19,000 per annum
Location: Oxford, UK

Level 4 Sports Massage Course

Discovery Learning
Salary:
Location: Nationwide, United Kingdom

Multi-Skilled Recreation Apprentice (Lifeguard) -

GLL
Salary: Up to £17,806 per annum (39 hours a week pro rata)
Location: Amersham, UK

Crew Member/Fitness Instructor

énergie fitness
Salary: £16,826
Location: High Street, Dumbarton, UK

Member Admin Manager

Ilkley Lawn Tennis and Squash Club
Salary: Competitive Salary and Benefits
Location: Ilkley, West Yorkshire
training with sports management

Health Referral Facilitator

GLL
Salary: Up to £11.75 per hour
Location: Ruislip, West London

Fitness Instructor

truGym
Salary: Competitive Salary and Benefits
Location: Peterborough, United Kingdom

Activity Leader Apprenticeship

Everyone Active
Salary: Competitive Salary & Benefits
Location: Southall, UK

Activity Leader Apprenticeship

Everyone Active
Salary: Competitive Salary & Benefits
Location: Northolt, UK

Activity Leader Apprenticeship

Everyone Active
Salary: Competitive Salary & Benefits
Location: Brent Valley Golf Club, London, UK

Activity Leader Apprenticeship

Everyone Active
Salary: Competitive Salary & Benefits
Location: Acton, London, UK

Activity Leader Apprenticeship

Everyone Active
Salary: Competitive Salary & Benefits
Location: Solihull, UK
lifeguard jobs  Swimming Teacher jobs  apprenticeships jobs  recreation assistant jobs  Gymnastics Coach jobs  Swimming Instructor jobs  membership consultant jobs  fitness instructor jobs  general manager jobs  General Assistant jobs  duty manager jobs  Customer Advisor jobs  Leisure Assistant jobs  Sports Coordinator jobs  personal trainer jobs 
More jobs

Catalogue Gallery

JP Lennard: Leading supplier to Commercial Swimming Pools, Leisure Centres, Health & Fitness Clubs, Hotels, Holiday Parks, Schools and Universities, supplying thousands of products directly into these sectors.
JPL
BSW: BSW is a manufacturer of sports floorings, sports mats, gym flooring, elastomer products for impact sound insulation and vibration isolation, anti-slip mats for securing loads as well as protective and separating layers.
BSW
More catalogues

Video Gallery

Fitness On Demand
No More Empty Studios. Seriously. Fitness On Demand™ Virtual Group Fitness.
Visit website
More videos

Company profile

Company profile: Pavigym
PAVIGYM is the premier innovator of flooring and interactive solutions for the global fitness industry.
View full profile >
More company profiles

Featured Supplier

Shapewatch 3D body scanner puts users in control of their goals
Shapewatch is an innovative, new 3D body visualisation solution that allows members to scan their bodies, monitor key biometrics and see their body shape in 3D.
View full details >
More featured suppliers

Property & Tenders

Location: Lee Valley VeloPark
Company: Lee Valley Regional Park
Location: White Rocks, Hastings
Company: GVA
Location:
Company: Gravesham Borough Council
More properties & tenders

Diary dates

15 Nov 2018
Unique Venues Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom
27-27 Nov 2018
Harrogate Convention Centre, Harrogate, United Kingdom
05-06 Dec 2018
Palexpo Convention Center, Geneva, Switzerland
22-24 Jan 2019
Harrogate Convention Centre, Harrogate, United Kingdom
More diary dates