The CEO Magazine caught up with the Olympic diver turned cabaret performer as he prepares to hit the road with new show Up Close and Personal.

One of the enduring stories of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was Matthew Mitcham’s performance in the 10m diving competition. Trailing Chinese diver Zhou Lüxin by 107.3 points going into the final round, he produced an aesthetically and technically perfect two and a half somersault with two and a half twists in the pike position dive. It was the highest-scoring individual dive in Olympic history, including scores of 10.0 from some of the judges and it propelled him to a memorable gold medal win.

The openly gay Mitcham became an icon for his community and the sport’s most recognisable and popular figure. Despite some major injuries and thoughts of quitting diving, he enjoyed more success, collecting four medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and three, including another gold, at the 2014 tournament.

From the outside, he seemed on top of the world. Underneath the accolades, however, Mitcham was battling personal demons, including crippling depression, anxiety and substance abuse. In 2012, he wrote Twists and Turns, an autobiography praised for its unvarnished account of both his headline-making highs and private lows. He later turned the work into a festival show and has now emerged as a drawcard on the cabaret circuit.

His latest work is titled Up Close and Personal. He talked to The CEO Magazine about the new show, his artistic heroes and how we are learning more about the issues athletes face when their sporting careers end.

What’s the concept behind Up Close and Personal?

Unlike the other shows (Twists and Turns and Under the Covers), Up Close and Personal isn’t one solid, flowing unit of a story. This is a more traditional cabaret setting like song-story-song-story premise; it’s all the best bits that didn’t fit into the other shows. Plus, there are a whole lot of jokes that I’ve been writing over the last year and just some funny songs and anecdotes I’ve picked up along the way.

Who are your cabaret heroes?

Alan Cummings, Meow Meow who else? I don’t mind watching a little bit of burlesque, I don’t even mind watching the ladies! It’s a fantastic artform and I guess that’s the right way to watch burlesque isn’t it? It isn’t a sexual artform, though that’s a totally separate philosophical thing.

I like Reuben Kaye, Michael Griffiths, quite a lot of different things.

There is a lot of audience participation in a Meow Meow performance, is that something you incorporate into your show?

Yes, I do, always. I love being in an audience where there is participation so I will always involve the audience in some way. And a show is not all about me, it’s about the audience too.

Are you working with the same director this time around?

No, this one doesn’t have a director because it’s not structured as a whole story or a musical theatre piece and there are fewer players on the stage. It’s very intimate and pared back. It doesn’t have the pyrotechnics. It’s raw; just me, my ukulele and a pianist, just telling stories from my career and some awkward, growing up life lessons.

How far back does your ukulele playing go? Did you have time for it during your diving career?

Yes, in the last few years of my career I did. It actually came about because I broke my back in 2010 and I was forced into three months of bed rest. So, I passed that time by learning the ukulele through YouTube tutorials.

You’ve been very open in your work about the challenges athletes face when their sporting careers end. Do you think we’re seeing a lot more openness from athletes on this issue now?

We can only learn more about that stuff when athletes talk about it very openly and candidly. Now that more athletes are comfortable talking about their experiences, we’re starting to get a more comprehensive picture of what the issues might be, where they come from and how we might be able to prevent some of those issues from happening.

There will always be something of an identity crisis for (retired) athletes and they will be mourning the loss of their career. But it’s about making sure an athlete doesn’t put all of their identity, value and self-esteem into their career. It’s about them having something that they’re passionate about and that they can transition to. The athletes who prepare for that do much better.

There are still very few out LGBTI elite athletes. Do you think sport is moving towards inclusivity or do you think more needs to be done in that area?

Both. If we look at the Beijing Olympics (2008), there were only eleven openly LGBTI athletes. In London (2012 Olympics), there were about 24 or so and Rio (2016 Olympics) there were around 42.

So, you can see that number is increasing in the Olympics but more can always be done because there is certainly nowhere the representation in elite sports that you see in the wider population. You wouldn’t see 10% (representation of LGBTI people) in the highest echelon of athletes, you don’t see anywhere near that.

More can be done but I don’t know if it is an institutional thing within the sports themselves. It may also be a societal thing and athletes will feel more comfortable to come out when they know that being openly LGBTI is not going to put them in the public spotlight and they know it’s not going to affect their endorsements or anything like that.

Up Close and Personal by Matthew Mitcham plays Bondi Theatre Company (Sydney) on 27 October.