At the Sochi Games, he was the medal-winning athlete who overshadowed that achievement by rescuing five stray dogs. In Pyeongchang, he is vacuuming up attention with his “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it” posts and photographs of him kissing skater Adam Rippon and taking swipes at US Vice President Mike Pence.
Eventually, Gus Kenworthy hopes he will be talked about more for his skiing, the insane tricks and risks he and other slopestylers take negotiating the big jumps and zany rails of the Olympic course.
By vigorously embracing an unofficial role as Olympic flag-bearer for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Kenworthy is edging sport closer to the point where being a gay athlete is no longer an issue.
That, at least, is his plan, but sports are not there yet. Proof? Well, for starters: The people who have confided to him at these games that they are gay, but have not yet taken the step he took in 2015 to say so publicly.
“That’s been insane to me, and I think it also just shows that there’s a lot more of us, but it’s still kind of a condemning time and hopefully one day it won’t be,” Kenworthy said in an interview yesterday.
Kenworthy’s silver medal in a historic US sweep in slopestyle skiing’s Olympic debut in 2014 in some ways took a backseat to his adoption of five Sochi strays.
What Kenworthy did not say was that the dogs’ new parents included his boyfriend at the time, but the experience of competing at the Sochi Games, which shone a spotlight on homophobia in Russia, proved to be a watershed in his decision the following year to come out.
“Just being there, I realized how important it is to have representation,” he said.
Among his concerns were that he would lose sponsors. The opposite has proved true.
“Brands actually want diversity and there’s not a lot of diversity at the Winter Olympics,” he said.
Kenworthy and Rippon said their tweets from the opening ceremony were not pre-planned, but their large social media followings ensured buzz.
“We kind of looked at each other and said: ‘We really should march in together,’” Rippon said. “I admire Gus so much for coming out in an X-Games sport and really showing the world who he is. We’re kind of bonded for life.”
Kenworthy said the posts elicited “the most negatives responses that I’ve ever gotten,” and that he gets messages from “people wishing me to fall during my runs, wishing me to get hurt, whatever it is.”
“It’s hard to read those, but I think you just have to take it with a grain of salt,” he said.
However, a steady stream of messages arrive from people telling him that he is giving them courage.
Some are kids “feeling suicidal,” he said, adding that he takes time to respond to them.
Although he is keen to medal again, Kenworthy said the mark he most wants to leave is for the LGBT cause.
“Myself being out, Adam being out, all these athletes that are finally out for the first time, I think it just shows a shift and a change and hopefully it means that in the future 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.’”
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