By Iain Axon

 

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Gus Kenworthy hopes the growing number of openly gay athletes at the Olympics will one day ensure the topic of sexuality barely merits a mention at the Games but the U.S. skier says there is still a long way to go.

 

Kenworthy, who has dubbed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence a "bad fit" to lead their delegation in Pyeongchang, became the first openly gay action sports athlete when he came out in a cover story for ESPN The Magazine in 2015.

 

The 26-year-old told Reuters on Sunday he was excited about representing the United States as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community at the ongoing Games in South Korea.

 

However, he said he had no intention of meeting Pence, who is often to the right of mainstream America on gay rights and other social issues.

 

"I don't think I have any inclination toward a meeting, I think in terms of distractions, as my previous questions would be, I think that would be a much bigger distraction for me," said Kenworthy, a silver medal winner in the ski slopestyle at Sochi.

The British-born freestyle skier told an American T.V. show last week that Pence was ill-suited to lead the U.S. delegation and posted a dig at the former Indiana governor on Instagram after Friday's opening ceremony.

"Eat your heart out, Pence," wrote Kenworthy in a caption for a photo of him and U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon, another openly gay athlete at the Games.

"I think that myself being out, Adam being out, all these athletes finally being out for the first time, I think it just shows a shift, a change, and hopefully in the future it means that it won't be a big thing," he added.

"It won't be a headline, it won't be the gay Olympian, the gay skier, the gay anything, it will just be a skier."

CHANGE PERCEPTIONS

In making the difficult decision to come out, Kenworthy says he took encouragement from Caitlyn Jenner, who as former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner in 2015 became the highest-profile American to transition to a woman.

"It was during a time when I was getting ready to come out and obviously we are in very different situations but I thought that Caitlyn having the courage to come out and be who she was, especially in a way more public way than I have ever dealt with, was really commendable," he said.

"When Caitlyn was Bruce he understood the pressure of the Olympics and everything else that goes hand in hand with it.

"And I think I just saw a lot of myself in the story and it touched me and came at a really important time of my life, so it was pretty impactful."

Kenworthy said that while he has been inundated with messages of support since coming out, the reaction has not always been positive.

And that while LGBT rights have made huge strides in recent years there were still parts of the world where "being gay is punishable by death".

"I think the only way to really change perceptions is through visibility, is through representation," he said.

"And the more that we have that, the more normalized queer becomes, the easier it is for people to wrap their heads around it and the more we will see positive change."

(Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)