This article originally appeared on Outsports
Our sports heroes are supposed to be a certain kind of person, act a certain way, fit a certain mold.
The women are ordered to wear pretty skirts, with laces if you can. Hair should be of ample length, none of that short “butch” stuff. Carry yourself like a lady whenever and wherever possible.
Oh, and be straight.
The men have their own instructions. Build ample musculature. Keep your hair clean-cut, but nothing too fancy. Men aren’t fancy. Speak with a deep voice, talk about family a lot, and pick a couple masculine interests — may we suggest beer and your love of sports — as go-to talking points.
Oh, and be straight.
So when an athlete like Adam Rippon comes along, breaking every single rule dictating how American athletes become American heroes, a caution flag gets waved. The TV networks pull back. Corporations shy away. Children must be protected, the very image of what it is to be a man in America suddenly at risk.
Except... not this time.
This time, NBC is talking about how Rippon “slays.”
This time, marketing departments in corporate America are scrambling to figure out how to connect themselves to the gay kid.
This time, straight guys are talking about how they love Adam Rippon.
This time... is different.
This all quite nearly happened once before. In 2010, Johnny Weir was a Rippon-style quote machine... or should I say he was just typical Johnny Weir. Everything American audiences are seeing now in his figure skating commentary and his outlandish outfits for NBC... he was in 2010.
He even gave a performance in the individual free skate that, we wrote at the time, “brought the crowd to its feet.”
Just as many felt about Rippon’s performance in the team event Sunday night, Weir was equally “robbed” of better numbers by a scoring system that mandates bigger jumps, less fancy. A scoring system that mandates its figure skaters be masculine not feminine, athletes not artists... straight not gay.
Despite the list of similarities, Rippon has hit a nerve with American audiences in a way Weir never did, in large part because those American audiences have, forever, changed.
From the perspective of 2010, it’s hard to recognize American culture as it relates to the LGBT community today. Just eight years ago opposing same-sex marriage was standard operating procedure for your run-of-the-mill Democrat; Now it’s bigotry. Wrapping a TV show around a big, black drag queen was ghettoized to “gay TV”; Now it’s ratings gold.
The most glittery, gay athlete at the Winter Olympics is, after just a few days, our national hero.
To be sure, we are all still Americans in one respect: We want a winner. Rippon could be as outlandish, as over-the-top, as witty as his mind could spin. But if he didn’t perform athletically, if he didn’t bring home a medal, he’d be long forgotten already a few days after his debut Olympic.
Instead, on day three of the figure skating competition, this slim young man in the most sequined outfit any one costume designer could muster, he gave an emotional performance that was felt from Pittsburgh to Pyeongchang. Hours later there he was, snapping pics with a medal around his neck, Olympic-hero status firmly secured.
It’s so important for gay youth to see someone like Rippon being his authentic gay self. We’ve seen a bit of it before, from the likes of the aforementioned Weir and Ru.
Yet no one has put it all together into quite the perfect package as has Rippon.
The kicker is all of this is the importance to that gay youth of seeing the reaction to him. Entertainers, athletes and politicians have lauded him. Their friends and family are celebrating him. Dads are talking glowingly about that Olympic hero in that shiny outfit. The reaction — to Rippon’s emotional performance and his big personality — gives that young kid permission to let his big personality out too.
The next couple of nights will be telling. Rippon isn’t favored to win a medal, largely because of the current (I’d say flawed) scoring system.
Yet no one can ever take away the medal he’s already won. He will forever be an American Olympic medalist. His legacy, and America’s love affair with Adam Rippon, isn’t going anywhere.
If he is able to win an individual medal this week, the Internet, and our perception of the great American hero, will break forever.
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