Image: Belle Brockhoff courtesy of Belle Brockhoff Facebook
There are a record eight out and proud gay and lesbian athletes competing in this month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, making it the most inclusive games ever.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were marred by controversy because of Russia’s anti-LGBT gay propaganda laws, which were introduced in June 2013. Many athletes denounced the laws, gay rights activists protested them and TV viewers boycotted the broadcast. South Korea is not exactly gay friendly, with no legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but this year’s controversy is not coming from the choice of host city. The controversy is because gay U.S athletes are angry at the choice of anti-LGBT Vice President Mike Pence as the head of the U.S delegation.
28 year old American figure skater Adam Rippon is the first openly gay U.S figure skater to compete at the Olympics. In January he told USA Today that Pence shouldn’t lead the delegation. “You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it."
“To stand by some of the things that Donald Trump has said and for Mike Pence to say he’s a devout Christian man is completely contradictory. If he’s okay with what’s being said about people and Americans and foreigners and about different countries that are being called ‘shitholes,’ I think he should really go to church.”
Image: Adam Rippon courtesy of Adam Rippon Facebook
Pence’s press secretary Alyssa Farah immediately issued a statement which hit back at the athlete's claim that Pence funded gay conversion therapy.
“The vice president is proud to lead the U.S. delegation to the Olympics and support America’s incredible athletes.”
“(Rippon's) accusation is totally false and has no basis in fact. Despite these misinformed claims, the vice president will be enthusiastically supporting all the U.S. athletes competing next month in Pyeongchang.”
Rippon responded by posting links to Pence’s anti-LGBT legislation and statements on his Twitter account and is refusing to participate in a team meet and greet with the Vice President whilst at the Olympics.
Rippon is proud to be a role model for LGBT people, telling reporters on January 29 that “Being out and being visible can help make the journey a lot easier for someone else. When I was a really young kid, being from a small town was challenging. I didn’t have any role models. I didn’t have anybody to look up to. I didn’t feel like I belonged."
"And I told myself as I was older, if I ever had a chance to share my story, I would, and being gay is just something I am. It’s part of who I am, but you know? Getting to the Olympics is about the hard work I put in over years and years of practice.”
US freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy is competing in his second Olympics, but his first as an out athlete. He came out in a magazine interview in 2015, scared of the consequences but determined to be free.
“I knew I would feel so much better because I was being authentic and maybe it would help kids going through the same transition as me,” he told Reuters.
“I thought it would maybe help other people, either in professional sports or amateur sports or even just in communities where they felt isolated and scared to be themselves.”
Gus Kenworthy came out as gay in a 2015 cover story for ESPN
Kenworthy joined Rippon in criticising Pence’s attendance at the games, telling USA Today “I actually found out about (Pence attending) from Adam Rippon… I feel the same way as him.”
“I think it’s not the person I would have expected, and I think it sends mixed messages because this is the first time we’re seeing out U.S. Olympic athletes competing in the Winter Olympics, and then we have someone leading the delegation that doesn’t support that, and doesn’t support the LGBT community, and has spoken against it. I think it doesn’t send the right message.”
Canadian figure skater Eric Radford is competing at his second Olympics, but the first as an out athlete. In 2014 he became the first international-level figure skater to come out while still competing. Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas is married to Norwegian former snowboarder Stine Brun Kjeldaasa and the couple has two children. Before the Sochi games, Cheryl publicly criticised the International Olympic Committe for allowing Russia to host the games. Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz married her partner Isabel in 2013 and came out before the 2014 Olympic Games, saying “I don’t want to hide myself. I never cared at all what other people think about me.” Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst identifies as bisexual and in 2017 married Dutch speed skater Letitia de Jong.
Australia has added two out lesbians to it’s team, snowboarder Belle Brockhoff and cross-country skier Barbara Jezersek from Slovenia, who is competing at her third Olympics but her first representing Australia.
Australian cross-country skier Barbara Jezersek. Images courtesy of Barbara Jezersek Facebook
Brockhoff came out in 2013 and in the lead up to Sochi was one of the athletes most critical of Russia’s anti-LGBT laws. In 2014 she told the BBC "Right now, there's a law out there (in Russia) that's almost encouraging the rest of the population to discriminate against the gays."
"I want to go there because I'm not afraid of these laws and I want others that live in Russia, who are homosexuals, to see that."
"I'm not going to go around to every kid in Russia and say, 'Hey, gay is OK.' That's not why I'm there. I was never even thinking about doing that. I just want to support the LGBT community."
Image: Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff courtesy of Belle Brockhoff Facebook
The Olympics Opening Ceremony is Friday February 9 and the games finish Sunday February 25.