The Olympics are beautiful, mainly because they serve as a form of entertainment and a tool for mass sports education all at once.
I’ve always loved the Games because of their ability to shine a spotlight on obscure sports. Who can honestly say that they keep up with alpine skiing or curling on a regular basis? And yet, every four years, we throw on our red, white and blue and cheer on little-known athletes in sports we can barely understand.
As my friends and I watched the biathlon on the couch of our sorority house on Sunday, we alternated between cheering loudly for the American competitors and laughing at ourselves for how intensely we were reacting to a sport most of us had known nothing about an hour before. We were all starting to undergo that typical Olympic transformation — on the first day, filled with confusion; on the last day, shouting at a figure skater for under-rotating by 10 degrees on a jump as if we’d been skating judges our entire lives.
My favorite part of this whole process is the speed with which I find myself falling in love with athletes who I’d never heard of before. As one of the most popular sports of the Winter Olympics, figure skating is normally home to most of the idols on Team USA every four years.
This time around, that couldn’t be any more true with Adam Rippon, the men’s figure skater who shook the skating world on Sunday.
As of about three days ago, Rippon had already become one of my favorite winter athletes, thanks mainly to his hilarious, off-the-cuff quotes. In one interview, when asked about the experience of being an openly gay athlete, he responded, “It’s exactly like being a straight athlete … but usually done with better eyebrows.” After his performance on Sunday, he looked straight into the camera and said he wanted “a Xanax and a drink” on live television.
This is the guy who almost performed to his own cover of a Rihanna song at the Olympics, the guy who took to Twitter to make sure that everyone knew his butt was real, not a product of padding.
And he’s even more entertaining on the ice. On Sunday, Rippon gave a performance that combined much of the fluidity and artistic vision typically reserved for female skaters while still providing unbelievable power in his jumps and tricks. Every moment of the choreography — which was set to a Coldplay medley and met with gasps and astounding applause by the fans in the stands — was absolutely dazzling, and I was more than a little dumbfounded when it only earned him a bronze medal.
I find it both impossible and unpatriotic to dislike Rippon. But the reason he touched me so deeply on Sunday was because of what his medal and performance by an out gay man meant to me, as both a sports fan and a member of the LGBTQ community.
It’s not like I haven’t seen gay athletes compete before. I’ve been a women’s soccer fan for as long as I can remember, and watching Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe in their heydays in 2012, and their presence as out-and-proud gay women made a quiet but solid impact in my childhood as I became more comfortable with my own sexuality.
But something about watching Rippon felt different. It took me a while to recognize why — that figure skating is an intimate sport, with all eyes focused on a single person, and that it’s rare to see a queer person in such a spotlight of celebration. In that spotlight, Rippon couldn’t help but shine.
There was such pride and grace in the way Rippon skated, in the way he joked with interviewers and cheered with his teammates. I knew, as I watched Rippon, what that moment meant to both him and to legions fans, both young and old, who were watching a star who was just like them being born.
Rippon didn’t win the top award of the Olympics, and he will probably soon be overshadowed in the media by Nathan Chen and other American stars. But it gives me both pride and hope to know that, for so many others like me, the greatest moment of the 2018 Olympics already happened.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Tuesdays.