(GANGNEUNG, South Korea) — Adam Rippon doesn’t want his monthlong dispute with Mike Pence over the vice president’s record on gay rights to overshadow his long-awaited Olympic performance.
Or those of the rest of the American team.
One of two openly gay U.S. athletes at the Pyeongchang Games, Rippon criticized the White House last month for choosing Pence to lead its official delegation for Friday’s opening ceremony.
Pence has been considered an opponent of the LGBT community after the conservative vice president signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in March 2015 while serving as governor of Indiana.
Critics said the legislation encouraged discrimination against gay people. An amendment with protections for the LGBT community was passed a week later.
“I don’t want to make this too much for my competitors and for my teammates,” Rippon said after an afternoon practice session Thursday. “I’m just kind of focused on the competition. The opening ceremony is tomorrow. I don’t mind talking about it but I don’t want to distract my teammates.”
Pence, who arrived in Seoul on Thursday, also tried to bury the story. He tweeted to Rippon: “I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don’t let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold. Go get ’em!”
Rippon’s practice session ended before Pence’s tweet, but his mother, Kelly Rippon, told CNN she objected to the vice president calling the story “fake news.”
“When people keep saying that word, ‘fake news,’ over and over again it implies that you can do things and you can never be held accountable for them because you just say that it’s fake,” Kelly Rippon said. “That repetition of that term I don’t think is good.”
What Rippon jokingly referred to as “brouhaha” began with an interview with USA Today last month in which he called Pence, among other things, a hypocrite for espousing Christian virtues while standing by some of the divisive and inflammatory statements made by President Donald Trump.
“If he’s OK with what’s being said about people and Americans and foreigners and about different countries,” Rippon said, “I think he should really go to church.”
Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, was quick to respond with a sharp rebuke. Farah said in a statement that some of Rippon’s statements were “totally false” and had “no basis in fact,” including an assertion he made that Pence once championed gay conversion therapy.
Their spat took another twist this week when USA Today, citing unnamed sources, said Pence had requested to speak with Rippon in mid-January but the skater turned down his overtures.
A White House official told reporters traveling with Pence to South Korea that his office did reach out to the U.S. Olympic Committee, offering to meet with Rippon. The vice president’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, called USOC executive Scott Blackmun after Rippon’s initial criticism last month and objected to comments about gay conversion therapy and wanted to clear up the confusion, a White House official said.
Rippon did not address any of the olive branches Thursday, but he again said he has no interest in meeting with Pence until after the Olympics. The 28-year-old American will debut Monday in the free skate portion of the team event for the medal-contending U.S. squad, then he’ll compete later this month with teammates Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou in the individual competition.
“I mean, after the competition I’ll have an open conversation,” Rippon said, “but the opening ceremony is tomorrow. I’m really focused on the competition. I’ve waited 28 years to get here. I’m trying to stay focused. It’s my opportunity to show the world what I’ve got and represent my country.”
U.S. skier Gus Kenworthy, who also is gay, has been similarly critical of Pence’s role in leading the U.S. delegation, calling him a “strange choice” in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres this week.
Rippon and Kenworthy both say they would skip a White House visit if Team USA is invited.
“I think at the very core I’ve always spoken my mind, spoken from the heart,” Rippon said. “I think as an athlete that’s important. And I know not everyone will agree with me, but I think that is what is special about the Olympics. It’s a time to come together as athletes and unite.”