National Column: Pence losing spin war to skater Rippon

by Rosie DiManno

The reactionary veep and the saucy gay figure skater.

Going head-to-head, Adam Rippon has left Mike Pence in his ice-chip splatter, leaving the U.S. vice-president sputtering on Twitter.

A whole lotta spinning going on in recent days, mostly out of Pence’s office, with functionaries trying to stifle the political melodrama for their boss by insisting, no, the No. 2 did not seek out a private meeting with the Olympian in a truce bid. Except Rippon’s agent has confirmed receiving the phone call and Christine Brennan, the veteran USA Today columnist who disclosed the backroom manoeuvring just before last Friday’s opening ceremony – Pence here leading the American dignitaries delegation – has stuck to her guns.

“The report is true and therefore will not be corrected,” Brennan tweeted, referring to her story that Pence – or his peeps – had taken the highly unusual step of asking the United States Olympic Committee to arrange a conversation with the athlete in Pyeongchang.

Never happened, countered the spin doctors. No invitation, ergo no rebuff.

Yet Pence was clearly miffed, taking the time, while flying into Seoul aboard Air Force Two – and taking a hard diplomatic line against North Korea – to tweet Rippon a message of support. “I want you know we are FOR YOU. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes.”

It might all be a farce in a mitten, small beer compared to the scandals pouring out of the Donald Trump White House. But it’s doubtless caused great embarrassment for Pence, called out by an athlete over his perceived homophobia, the source of the snub that prompted Rippon to say he had no interest in attending a reception for U.S. Olympians at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., should the invitation be extended after the Games. Nor did he make an appearance at the informal meet’n’greet with Pence and American athletes last week.

Last month, Rippon had teed off on Pence to USA Today, criticizing the White House for giving the vice-president a ceremonial role at the Olympics opening.

“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it.”

Rippon added: “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of his way to not only show that they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think they’re sick.”

Pence’s pol posse is adamant the VP has no hostility toward the gay community and doesn’t support medically discredited conversion therapy – altering their sexual orientation.

It’s an accusation that has hung over Pence – who opposed same-sex marriage and has steadily campaigned against anti-discrimination laws which protect gay people. While running for Congress, he posted a controversial comment on his campaign website: “Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behavior that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed towards those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Rippon took that to mean Pence favoured conversion therapy. The vice-president denies it, though it’s hard to see whatever else he possibly meant. The LGBTQ community sees insinuations about facilitating the HIV virus as directly, squarely, at them. It’s not a dog-whistle, it’s an ear-splitting whistle.

Athletes have rallied to Rippon’s side. At the opening ceremonies, gay freestyle skier Gus Kensworthy took a selfie with the figure skater and posted it on social media. “Eat your heart out Pence #Team USA #Team USGay.”

Kensworthy, silver medallist in Sochi, came out as gay in 2015, just after Rippon did so publicly in the official United States Figure Skating Association’s magazine.

In the past few days, Rippon – at 28 years of age, elder statesman of the American figure skating team but competing at his first Olympics after failing to make the squad for Vancouver and Sochi – has been a tad more conciliatory towards Pence, saying, sure, he’d meet with the guy after the Games, why not? “I am trying to train for the biggest competition of my life. I’m not trying to pick a fight with the vice-president of the United States.”

But sassy and a quote-machine by nature, Rippon can hardly help himself. For better or worse, he’s become a gay icon to the LGBTQ constituency, and beyond. He employs a boilerplate response when asked, as he so frequently has been, about what it’s like to be an openly gay athlete. “It’s like being a straight athlete, with better eyebrows.”

I mean no disrespect by describing Rippon as Johnny Weir Light.

Johnny Weird, as he was affectionately known during his skating career – for the outrageous costumes and the outlandish toss-off bon mots – is up at the commentary booth for NBC, wearing a rhinestone-studded headset over his pompadour and a sparkly cherry jacket.

He does not do understated.

I don’t recall anyone ever asking Weir if he was gay. It seemed a superfluous question. Gay people have always been well-represented in the figure skating universe – in or out. And the sport has always been welcoming to gay athletes.

Canadian pairs skater Eric Radford came out in 2014 and last June proposed to long-time boyfriend Luis
Fenero. (He said yes.)

On Tuesday, Rippon did most of his spinning on the ice, contributing to a U.S. bronze in the team event behind Canada and the Olympic Athletes from Russia. One of his signature moves is a layback spin usually performed by female skaters.

“The last few seconds of the performance, I was saying, baby, you better keep it together. As I was going into my last spin, I looked at one of the judges, I pushed forward and I said, you know what? You were
never known for your jumps so you better spin the hell out of this last spin.”

In a wildly entertaining session afterward with reporters in the mixed zone, Rippon admitted he’d been an anxious mess before taking the ice. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous before 10 a.m. in my life.”

He enjoys taking the mickey out of himself. Ignoring the Pence kerfuffle on the weekend, he tweeted instead about being disappointed that the condoms available at the athletes village weren’t decorated with Olympic rings and cleared up speculation that he uses butt-cheek padding. “I’d like to set the record straight and let it be known. It’s just my real butt.”

Last week, Rippon got his teeth bleached to match the white ice and his new costume.

He wants to focus on competing but he knows the questions here, because of the Pence face-off, will eventually curl around to the gay thing. So he compartmentalizes. And, as a kid who grow up in small-
town Pennsylvania, feeling different and awkward, he plays the question straight.

“You know, I can be honest with you. Sometimes it’s really hard,” he says, of carrying that rainbow flag in the sports world. “But I came here to do a job and I think that being vocal has kind of given my skating more importance. It’s not just for me. Everybody can relate to being different or feeling like they’re not good enough or they’ll never make it because they’re from a small town or maybe they just don’t feel like they’re good enough.

“Well, I had those doubts, too. I want to show kids that anything is possible. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what other people say about you. You can put that all behind you. You can go out there and you can show the world what you have to offer.” Gay. A figure skater. And one hell of a tough competitor.

At Skate America last November, Rippon was in the middle of his free skate when he landed hard on a quad Lutz and dislocated his shoulder. Pausing for a moment, he popped it back in and continued, winning silver.

Let’s see Pence try that.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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