WASHINGTON — Vice President Pence is not just sending a broad geopolitical message by leading the U.S. delegation at the Winter Olympics. He also is delivering personal ones to the dozens of American athletes vying for medals — two of whom have ...
Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY Published 5:00 p.m. ET Feb. 8, 2018
Vice President Pence has dubbed a USA TODAY Sports report “fake news” as tensions simmer between the VP and Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon. Buzz60
WASHINGTON — Vice President Pence is not just sending a broad geopolitical message by leading the U.S. delegation at the Winter Olympics.
He also is delivering personal ones to the dozens of American athletes vying for medals — two of whom have publicly criticized his involvement with the games.
"You have inspired every American through the discipline and determination that you brought to this day," Pence wrote in a letter to Nick Goepper, a freestyle skiier who grew up in southern Indiana. "Please know that I will be rooting for you and rallying behind Team U.S.A."
The letter — along with similar ones for the other 243 athletes — are being given to them at the Olympic village in PyeongChang, South Korea Thursday.
Pence also sent letters to the mayors of the athletes' home towns.
"On behalf of the American people, Pence wrote to the mayor of Lawrenceburg, Ind., "I want you to know how proud we are of your community for representing America on the world stage."
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Pence will be attending the Olympic Games opening ceremonies Friday and cheering on competitors at some events Saturday before returning to the United States from his six-day trip to Japan and South Korea.
The broader purpose for Pence's presence is to keep the pressure on Pyongyang and counteract any North Korean propaganda victory over its participation in the Olympics.
"We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region," Pence said Wednesday in Japan where he announced that the U.S. is preparing the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
North Korea, which has accused the U.S. of politicizing the games, is sending the sister of its leader Kim Jong Un to the Olympics.
Attending the games with Pence is the father of Otto Warmbier, the American who died after he was imprisoned in North Korea.
Before attending the opening ceremony, Pence is scheduled to visit the Cheonan Memorial, which honors 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 boat sinking attributed to North Korea.
The 244 U.S. athletes competing in South Korea make up the largest delegation sent by any nation to the Winter Games in Olympic history.
The youngest is 17-year-old figure skater Vincent Zhou. The oldest is 39-year-old ice hockey player Brian Gionta.
The team is the most diverse U.S. winter team on record, according to the U.S.Olympic Committee. There are 10 African-American athletes, 11 Asian-American athletes and two openly gay athletes.
Figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skiier Gus Kenworthy — the first openly gay athletes to represent Team USA at the Winter Games — have both said they would have preferred a different ceremonial head of the U.S. delegation. Kenworthy called Pence a "bad fit" because he's "directly attacked the LGBT community" while "the Olympics is all about inclusion."
Rippon told USA TODAY he wasn't happy with the choice because Pence "funded gay conversion therapy."
Rippon's comments reflect a widespread belief in the LGBT community stemming from a statement Pence made in 2000 on his congressional campaign website: “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
Pence's spokesmen have denied that was a reference to conversion therapy.
After USA TODAY published Rippon's comments, Pence offered to meet with Rippon. The skater declined, but has said several times that he would consider meeting with Pence sometime after he's finished competing.
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