Mike Pence tangles with Olympian Adam Rippon over gay rights record

Adam Rippon training ahead of the Olympics on Feb 8, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (NYTIMES) - The 2018 Winter Olympics officially opened on Friday (Feb 9) but the first bit of drama has already boiled over: a three-way dispute between Adam Rippon, the first openly gay American man to qualify to compete in the Winter Games; Mike Pence, the conservative vice-president and longtime opponent of gay rights; and the newspaper USA Today.

As controversies go, this one seems to have it all. Rippon, a charismatic 28-year-old figure skater, newly minted gay icon and social media darling, criticised Pence for his opposition to gay rights and long-rumored support of conversion therapy, a discredited practice that proponents claim can make gay people straight.

Rippon also declined an invitation to meet with Pence before the games, his agent said.

Pence and his spokesmen have pushed back, arguing that he does not support conversion therapy, which has been discredited by the medical community and condemned by rights groups.

And the snub from Rippon? They say it never happened because they never asked him to meet in the first place.

The dispute began Jan 17, when Rippon criticised the White House decision to give Pence the ceremonial role of leading the US delegation to the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?" Rippon said to USA Today. "I'm not buying it."

He said he would prefer not to meet Pence at the informal gathering of US athletes and the official delegation held before the games.

"If it were before my event, I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of their way to not only show that they aren't a friend of a gay person but that they think that they're sick," Rippon told the newspaper.

Pence has been dogged by claims that he supports conversion therapy since his 2000 campaign for Congress. In a paragraph about HIV/Aids, his campaign website said federal funding should go to "institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behaviour."

That was widely interpreted as signalling his support for conversion therapy.

Representatives for Pence did not respond to emails seeking comment this week. But in January, a spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, responded to Rippon, telling USA Today, "This accusation is totally false and has no basis in fact."

In 2016, a spokesman, Marc Lotter, denied that Pence supported conversion therapy and said it was a "mischaracterisation" to read his 2000 campaign statement that way. But he declined to explain what Pence had been referring to.

Rippon repeated his criticism of Pence on Twitter after the USA Today article was published, but he told reporters he had no interest in "picking a fight" with the vice-president.

That seemed as if it might be the end of it. But two weeks later, things escalated.

On Wednesday, USA Today reported that Pence's office was so concerned about Rippon's criticism that it had taken the unusual step of asking the US Olympic Committee to arrange "a conversation between the two".

Rippon, true to his word, would not meet with the vice-president, the paper reported.

That seemed to be too much for Pence.

On Thursday, he lashed out at the paper, posting on Twitter that the report was "fake news" and that the journalist who had written it was bent on dividing Americans. But he was careful not to criticise Rippon.

Pence's communications director, Jarrod Agen, denied that he ever requested a meeting with Rippon, and said that the USA Today report was "just not accurate".

"The USA Today report is false & should be corrected," Agen tweeted. "VP's office did not try to arrange a meeting with Mr Rippon at Olympics."

But Rippon's agent, David Baden, said it was Pence's version of events that was not accurate.

"We were contacted by his office and I think the objective was to have a conversation with Adam," he said in an interview. The request did not come directly to him or Rippon but "went through the various proper channels and that message was then sent to us," he said.

He declined to explain what those channels were. The US Olympic Committee did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Rippon "obviously respects the office of the vice-president and took the request seriously," he said.

But the figure skater "respectfully declined and said after he was done competing he would revisit the request."

"His job is to be an athlete," Baden said. "His mind is on training, competing and doing his best to represent the US going into the Olympics."

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