"I danced to this," Brian Boitano says when Heart's "Crazy For You" begins to play over the speakers. "They're so awesome, I love Heart."
We had waded through snow, slush, and rain on this cold February and are huddled in a cozy corner of Good Enough to Eat, a restaurant in the Upper West Side, located not too far from Boitano's own apartment where he lives when he's not at his San Francisco home. After Journey's "Separate Ways," another song he skated to, fills the restaurant, Boitano explains how a routine's choreography automatically begins to come back as a sort of Proustian muscle memory when triggered by a familiar tune. "What's going to be next, Seal's 'Don't Cry'?" he jokes. "This is a good sign of some sort."
Boitano is understandably looking for good omens with all that's been happening in his life recently. His father passed away, and he also lost his mother last month, before he was scheduled to travel to the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as part of the U.S. delegation to the games, and a visible "message" that President Obama wished to send to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But first Boitano had to come out. He did that two days after the White House released the names of the people who would represent the United States, including openly gay athletes Billy Jean King and Caitlin Cahow (King ultimately had to bow out due to her mother's failing health).
But many already assumed—including some who worked in the media—that Boitano, who won Olympic gold in 1988, was already out.
Brian Boitano, age 8
The fact was, for most of Boitano's life, he didn't have time to think about his sexuality. From the time he was 8, he was waking up as early as 5 a.m. and to skate. "Until I was 24, I was nothing. I was asexual," he explains, saying he told his family he was gay when he was 25 in the 1980s. "I was focused on skating so it wasn't even an issue and I was still trying to discover who I was, although I knew I was gay since I was young, 4 years old."
He goes on to elaborate that he and other figure skaters were clueless that the mainstream audience usually assumes that most of the male athletes are gay due to their virtuosic flair while on the ice, often dressed in outrageous costumes (Boitano says he only wore one costume he regrets, a silver lamé top paired with lavender tights). In fact, Boitano says that most of his early career, he assumed he was alone among his peers as the gay one. It was during the tour with Champions On Ice, after he retired from Olympic competition, when he realized he was one of two gay skaters of a total of 40, the rest being macho males with girlfriends. So he never considered talking about his personal life in a public way.
"When people ask now, 'Do you really have to announce this?' I say, 'Yeah, you do have to announce it.' I had to make it official since I was going to be on the delegation. I never felt like I needed to before, so whether people figured it out if I was gay or not, I had to make it official, why I had to come out publicly."
As people have debated the politics around the Olympics for the past two weeks, and the months preceding it—and other athletes, such as Michael Sam, have come out in unprecedented ways—ultimately one may turn cynical and begin to wonder the reasons sports still matter in popular culture. Even more importantly: Why gay athletes cause such a stir? Boitano has considered this question, even if his sport only receives such intense scrutiny once every four years by most fairweather fans.
"I think people lay it on the line," Boitano says. "With figure skating, there's no one to pass it to; you are tested and testing your concentration, your focus, everything. That's why people are on the edge of their seats; they imagine themselves doing that, and they live vicariously through that moment."
It's another reason why Boitano and other athletes had no patience for all the talk around a boycott of the games. "You've been living, breathing for 20 years," he explains. "You've worked your entire lifetime for this one moment. Ask these people if their jobs went away, how they would feel. There are other ways to send messages, and the athletes' job is to do the best job for their country that they can."
It's also this fierce determination of figure skaters—the need to be twice as good as the person behind them—that many gay kids may understand, since they often internalize the feeling that their "otherness" makes them an outsider at a young age and compensate by becoming overachievers. Boitano says that figure skating in particular causes children to grow up fast due to the rejection and intense criticism. "From a very young age you know, I might be the best, but I may not win," he explains. "Figure skating is very political. You may have the wrong coach, need more judges from your club on a panel. It's tough for the parents. You have to have a thick skin and you have to deal with heavy pressure, to be judged and criticized."
It's one reason why he loves track and field sports during the Summer Olympics. "I love the idea of a finish line, the idea that you can actually win this thing objectively. I always tell parents who want their kids to be figure skaters, have them do something with a finish line."
Suddenly back in the media spotlight due to his coming out has also meant that Boitano has the dubious responsibility of being an "expert" on gay athletes. So what does he think of his flamboyant colleague Johnny Weir, who has also retired from competitive figure skating this year, but has made a splash with his provocative wardrobe choices while commentating during the games?
"I think he's also sending a message while he's over there," Boitano says. "He's being seen by everyone, and what he's wearing and who he is. He's hired by an American company to be one of the commentators for NBC. It makes a statement: Athletes in America can be gay and successful. They're doing major things and they're accepted by all forms of society. In fact, people are watching him on American television and following what he says. They respect what he says. He's an aficionado. He knows the sport. I think that people don't give enough credence to the fact that the message is being sent in a subtle way. Sometimes, and I've said this many times in my interviews, sometimes the things that you don't say are stronger than the things that you do say. You can't shove something down someone's throat, but they get it when they see it happening."
As the games wind down, it's clear this has been unlike any other Winter Olympics with the amount of scrutiny the world media has paid to LGBT issues and Boitano has been proud to be a part of it. Although he regrets that his parents, who were such strong supporters of him his entire life and career, weren't there to witness it themselves.
"I think my dad, in particular, would have gotten the biggest kick out of Obama mentioning me in the year-end press conference and in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics," he says. "Here's his son, who grew up in Sunnyvale in a little dinky ice rink, and the president is talking about him. But also talking about this specific topic, about being an open gay man."