LGBT Olympians In The Winners Circle

By Joseph Jones

adam rippon.jpg

For decades, the world of professional sports has been minimal in volume with regards to LGBT representation.  To be a young LGBTQ athlete searching for an open and proud sports figure to look to as a role model, was like searching for a glittering jewel buried beneath of mountain of rocks.  And to look for such a coalescence of athleticism and LGBT identity at the Olympics, the quintessential demonstration of Herculean prowess, has not always been easy. But, all of that is changing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where LGBT athletes are not only participating, but also thriving.

Ireen Wüst, a speed skater from the Netherlands, solidified her place as the most decorated out athlete in history by winning her 10th Olympic medal after winning gold in the Women’s 1,500-meter race.  On Monday at the Gangneung Oval,Wüst surged past Japan’s Miho Takagi, crossing the finish line at an astonishing time of  one minute 54.35 seconds.  The bisexual speed skater could not be more overjoyed by her latest achievement saying, “I had a dream to win four gold medals at each Olympics, so Torino, Vancouver, Sochi and Korea. Now I’ve achieved that dream and it’s an incredible feeling. The tension was really high.” Apart from being a ten-time Olympic medalist,Wüst is also a six-time world speed skating champion, the youngest person from the Netherlands to become an Olympic champion, and the first Dutch person to win five Olympic gold medals.

Canadian figure skater, Eric Radford also broke records, and barriers, when he and his partner, Meaghan Duhamel took home gold in the team figure skating event.  Radford’s win makes him the first openly gay men to win a gold medal in a winter Olympics.  The out and proud Radford went to Twitter to bask in his glory tweeting:"This is amazing! I literally feel like I might explode with pride.”

Figure skater Adam Rippon, the first openly gay man to compete on the U.S. team, dazzled audiences with a spectacular performance, landing two triple axels, which earned him the bronze medal. Speaking to Time, Rippon beamed with pride,“This is the moment I’ve been waiting for my entire life. “Now I am actually an Olympian. They have footage, they can pull it up. Let the record show that Adam Rippon is an Olympian.”

Known for his friendly, lighthearted, and approachable manner, the high-spirited Rippon keeps fans entertained on and off the skating rink. NBC’s Andrea Joyce caught up with the skater fresh off of his bronze medal win, where Rippon was quite candid about the competition, “I want to throw up, I want to go over to the judges and say, ‘Can I just have a Xanax and a quick drink?'”

Fans of Rippon expressed outrage he did not receive higher marks than some of his opponents, who despite fumbling in their executions, took first and second place.  Although Rippon was flawless in his presentation, Patrick Chan and Mikhail Kolyada attempted more challenging jumps and spins than Rippon, and thus were able to earn more points.

While some of the viewers were disappointed with the results, if Rippon was equally upset, he masked his disconcertment with an excellent poker face, joking to Good Morning America,“I think we need to get those people who think that I was ripped off on a judging panel immediately, maybe before the individual competition.”

Rippon has earned praise for his skating prowess, but also for speaking on LGBT issues. Most notably, his ongoing feud with Vice President Mike Pence has demonstrated his commitment to standing proud as an advocate for equality. After his skating performance he didn’t hold back, telling ABC News “I personally don’t have anything to say to Mike Pence. I’m very lucky because legislation that he’s pushed hasn’t affected my life at all.”  Rippon’s comment on a statement on Pence’s 2000 congressional campaign website that many has interpreted as a show of support for conversion therapy,  "Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Rippon went further adding, “I spoke out because there are people out there whose lives have been affected by change that he’s tried to make. I spoke out for them because right now I have a voice and I think it’s really important for me to use it. That’s a conversation for them.” 

Some news outlets such as USA Today and Vogue reported Adam Rippon refused an offer to meet with Pence, a rumor Pence shot down as “fake news”, but several other news outlets claim they confirmed the offer with his office.

Pence attempted to ease the strain between him and Rippon in a tweet he made at the skater.: "@Adaripp I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don’t let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold. Go get ‘em!”

The Vice President’s crack at breaking the ice with Rippon clearly went unnoticed, as a social media post with pictures of Rippon and fellow gay Olympian, U.S. snowboarder Gus Kenworthy, were posted with a caption with the intention of throwing fuel onto the fire. The caption to the three pictures, one of them being Rippon receiving a peck on the cheek from Kenworthy read,"I feel incredibly honoured to be here in Korea competing for the US and I'm so proud to be representing the LGBT+ community alongside this amazing guy! Eat your heart out, Pence. #TeamUSA #TeamUSGay.”

Alongside Wüst and Radford, Rippon and Kenworthy help make up the 14 total out athletes competing in Pyeongchang at this years Winter Olympics. The other 10 are: Brittany Bowe (U.S., Speed skating), Belle Brockhoff (Australia, snowboarding), Jorik Hendrickx (Belgium, figure skating), Daniela Irashchko-Stolz (Austria, ski jumping), Barbara Jezeršek (Slovenia, cross-country skiing), Cheryl Maas (Netherlands, snowboarding), Sanne van Kerkhof (Netherlands, speed skating), Sarka Pancochova (Czech Republic, snowboarding), and Emilia Ramboldt (Sweden, Ice Hockey).

This 2018 Winter Olympics marks the first time openly gay men competed in the winter games.  However, this does not mark the most participation in the Olympics by openly LGBT athletes.  According to Rolling Stone magazine, 64 out athletes competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, nearly double the number of LGBT athletes which competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics.  The 2018 Winter Olympics also saw a doubling of out athletes, as the 2014 Winter Olympics only had 7 out athletes.

While the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics differs in number of out athletes, one thing the games have in common is being set in countries where the LGBT lifestyle is seen as taboo and not fully accepted. The 2014 Olympics were set in Sochi, Russia, which garnered controversy when in 2012 a Russian court blocked the establishment of a Pride House for LGBT athletes, and then in 2013 Russia received even more criticism after it passed a federal “gay propaganda law”, which prohibited the distribution of materials classified as “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” among minors. While South Korea has no laws against same-sex activity in Korea, same-sex unions are not recognized by the government, LGBT Koreans are not protected from discrimination, adopt children, or openly serve in the military.  Additionally, a 2013 Pew Research Poll showed that 60% of Koreans believe society shouldn’t accept homosexuality.  To be an out athlete competing in a country sticking to it’s conservative traditional values is a brave statement for equality, which will hopefully help to change hearts and minds.

While some may not see the significance of being a gay athlete in 2018, Kenworthy recognizes its importance, “For anyone who says ‘Who cares if you’re gay, it’s 2018?’ well, a lot of people care because a lot of people had the opportunity to be out and there’s been a lot of fear surrounding it. This is the first time we’re seeing representation and because of that it is a big deal”. He also hopes this will be breaking point for the acceptance of the LGBT community.

“I think that myself being out, Adam being out, all these athletes finally being out for the first time, I think it just shows a shift, a change, and hopefully in the future, it means that it won’t be a big thing. It won’t be a headline, it won’t be the gay Olympian, the gay skier, the gay anything, it will just be a skier.”

By seeing more types of LGBT representation, whether it is television & film, music, or sports, society can start to become more familiar with the LGBT community and find they can identify with their stories, and bask in their triumphs with them. They will see people which before they harbored hostility for as mirrors of themselves, with the only glaring difference between them as something largely inconsequential. This integration of out LGBT people in all aspects of society will also help to provide a strong foundation for today’s LGBTQ youth and future LGBT to find the strength and inspiration to live as their true self in a society which is more which reflects and accepts how they see themselves. To see a talented, charismatic, and successful out athlete achieve glory and receive praise at the Olympics, will send a strong message to those uncertain about how they will be treated if they came out, that they have nothing to fear and they will be loved. The sense of empowerment they will be filled with will give them the courage, motivation, and strength to overcome adversity, pursue their dreams, and go for the gold themselves.