WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sent Russia a clear message about its treatment of gays and lesbians with who he is – and isn’t – sending to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics.
Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies, Obama announced Tuesday. For the first time since 2000, however, the U.S. will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Games.
Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning “gay propaganda.” Though the White House did not specifically address the Russian laws in making its announcement, spokesman Shin Inouye said the delegation “represents the diversity that is the United States” and that Obama “knows they will showcase to the world the best of America – diversity, determination and teamwork.”
The White House said Obama’s schedule will not permit him to attend the Games.
“It’s a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, which recently sent a letter urging Obama to include gays and lesbians in the delegation. “Hopefully it sends a message to the Russian people and the rest of the world that the United States values the civil and human rights of LGBT people.”
King said she was “deeply honored” to be named to the delegation.
“I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi and I hope these Olympic Games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people,” said King, who will attend the opening ceremony.
Hockey player Caitlin Cahow is the other openly gay representative to the delegation. She’ll attend the closing ceremony.
The U.S. Olympic Committee made no comment about the sexual orientation of the delegation. In a nod to its disapproval of the law, however, the USOC recently revised its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation.
France and Germany are among the other countries who will not send their presidents to Sochi for the Games.
Earlier this year, Obama rejected the idea of a U.S. boycott of the Olympics despite a number of differences with Russia, including the anti-gay law.
This move, however, sends a strong signal: In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden led the delegation, and in 2012, first lady Michelle Obama held the honor.
This year’s group is led by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Others in the delegation include U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, figure skater Brian Boitano and presidential adviser Rob Nabors.
King, the iconic tennis player, might be the most recognizable face in the group.
She’s a 39-time Grand Slam title winner (singles, doubles and mixed), a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and on e of the most prominent advocates of equality for women in sports and society over the past several decades.
She’ll attend the Olympics in a country that is creating tension for several key players because of the laws, including the International Olympic Committee, which awarded the Games to Russia.
Earlier this month, IOC President Thomas Bach said Russia would set up public protest zones in Sochi for “people who want to express their opinion or want to demonstrate for or against something.”
Meanwhile, the IOC approved a letter going out to athletes reminding them to refrain from protests or political gestures during the Sochi Games – reiterating Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which forbids demonstrations on Olympic grounds.
Bach had previously said he’d received assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that gays will not be discriminated against in Sochi. But the Russian law has raised questions about what could happen to athletes who wear pins or badges or carry flags supporting gay rights.
Earlier this fall, skier Bode Miller was one of the few American athletes to speak out against the Russian law, calling it “absolutely embarrassing.”