Why Adam Rippon, Eric Radford's podium finish at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 is a win for LGBT community
Thanks to Eric Radford and Adam Rippon, there has been a much-needed conversation around sexuality and the sport of figure skating.
For a mega sporting event like the Olympics, the conversation usually tends to revolve around medal tallies and star athletes. The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018, however, have proven to be different. While the focus is as much on athletic excellence as at previous editions of the event, these particular Games have also brought the spotlight on the LGBTQ community.
Thanks to figure skating champions Eric Radford (Canada; who became the first openly gay man to win a gold medal at any Winter Olympics) and Adam Rippon (US; the first openly gay American to win a medal — the bronze — at the Winter Olympics), there have been thinkpieces, online and offline discussions on sexuality — especially in relation to the world of figure skating.
In a column for Slate titled 'Ice Queens', former figure skater-turned-writer for The Mindy Show Chris Schleicher described how he never felt that coming out as gay was an option, during his days in the sport. Schleicher and his sister performed as a pair and at one time, were ranked 13th in the US. Schleicher writes:
"To this day, I’m not entirely sure why I couldn’t say the words 'I’m gay' while I was still a skater. Somehow it felt cliché? ...But if I’m being honest, there definitely was pressure for boys within the world of skating to conform to a masculine ideal. And perhaps more importantly, I simply didn’t have many openly gay skaters at the elite level to look up to... Johnny Weir didn’t officially come out until 2011 and Brian Boitano didn’t until 2013. So in this exciting moment of Adam Rippon’s swishy, unapologetic arrival on the Olympic scene, let’s remember not to take his openness for granted. For years, homosexuality was the spinning pink elephant in the middle of the ice no one wanted to talk about, so we just drove the ice resurfacer around it and pretended it wasn’t there."
Schleicher also details how male figure skaters are almost forced to perform in a way decreed 'masculine' on ice. No "limp" wrists or too-arched backs, no costumes deemed too outré, no "effeminate" behaviour — period. Schleicher posits that one reason femininity is suppressed in men's skating is that "if the sport looked like it was for sissies, no boys would sign up to do it".
"Did they ever consider that a sport that leaned in to embracing femininity might actually attract the boys who don’t identify with traditionally masculine sports? I’m certain that after seeing Rippon gyrate to club beats at the Olympics, a certain subset of boys are going to demand skates for Christmas, and they won’t know exactly why until years later. What a nice change of pace for queer kids to see a specific and joyful gay sensibility being celebrated rather than degraded!" he writes.
Rippon and Radford have both talked about overcoming challenges on their way to becoming Olympic stars. Radford, who grew up in a small hockey town in Canada, was mercilessly bullied. While his family was very supportive when he came out as gay at the age of 18, it is only in recent years, after Radford has becoming a skating star that his former tormentors have come up to him and apologised for their past behaviour.
Radford, 33, described those years in a recent interview: "It was hard. Not only not being accepted by other people, but also there was a long time where I didn’t accept myself." He also expressed his hope that his athletic achievements while being open about his sexuality would help others. "It’s an opportunity I want to use to try to make things better," Radford was quoted as saying.
Rippon, 28, meanwhile, has quickly turned into a press and social media darling, with his ready quips and artistry on the ice. When asked what it was like being an openly gay athlete, Rippon replied: "Exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work but usually done with better eyebrows."
(Incidentally, skater Ireen Wüst — who identifies as bisexual — notched up a record 10th Olympic medal after winning gold in the women’s 1,500-metre race.)
Radford and Rippon's importance to men's figure skating cannot be understated. As a Guardian article pointed out, the way both these atletes have stepped up and spoken out could provide a much-needed inspirational narrative for the generations to come. The article contrasted their triumphant stories with that of the British skater John Curry — considered to be among the sport's greats — who was completely sidelined after disclosing in an interview that he was gay.
Curry won the gold medal in the men's figure skating competition at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Soon after, an interview he had given just before the Olympics was published, which included the revelation about Curry's sexuality. Curry maintained that his comments had been off the record and he had been tricked by the journalist; he did not, however, deny that he was gay. His Olympic glory seemed a thing of the past as the focus entirely shifted to his private life. Curry died alone and penniless in 1994, of AIDS.
As the Guardian op-ed states, in the furore over his sexuality, much else of what Curry had said in the infamous interview — what should have been paid attention to — was overlooked. Like this account of how he was physically and emotionally humiliated by his coach because of his perceived effeminacy:
“When I started to skate I had a coach who used to grab my arm and push it back to my side when I finished a movement with it in the air. This man wanted me to skate in a certain way and when he didn’t, he beat me. Literally beat me. And there were more humiliating things. He sent me to a doctor as if there were something to treat.”
After Curry and before Rippon and Radford, Rudy Galindo is the only male figure skater to have come out as gay while still in active competition. Galindo, who now works as a coach, was a US national and world champion in the sport. Galindo is seen as an LGBT pioneer, and lauded for his unabashed attitude on the ice.
When Rippon and Radford shared the podium at Pyeongchang, it was a historic and hopeful moment indeed — not just in the world of figure skating but also for the LGBTQ community. It proved, as Chris Schleicher writes in his op-ed, that "Going out there, doing your job, and serving up queer excellence is the fiercest rebuttal to homophobia there is!"
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