In an apparent snub to President Vladimir Putin over recent anti-gay legislation passed in Russia, the White House delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi includes Billie Jean King and another openly gay athlete — and no high-level American officials.
It is a sharp departure from recent Olympics. Michelle Obama led the U.S. delegation to the London Games last year, and Vice President Joe Biden went to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.
President George W. Bush and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led the U.S. delegation to Beijing in 2008, and first lady Laura Bush led the delegation to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
Besides King, the tennis legend, the U.S. delegation to the opening and closing ceremonies in Sochi, the Russian resort hosting the games, will include Caitlin Cahow, an openly gay two-time Olympic hockey medalist.
“I can’t wait to get to Russia to support the American team and to be part of one of the greatest global events of our time,” King said in a statement. “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.”
Russia passed a law last year banning “homosexual propaganda” and made it illegal to “spread information about non-traditional sexual behavior” to people under age 18. Foreigners are subject to fines and can be deported.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said that President Barack Obama knows that the delegation “will showcase to the world the best of America — diversity, determination and teamwork.”
Pressed by reporters on whether the president was sending a message, Carney said: “That’s not a message we would wait to send through this manner. We have been very clear. The president has been very clear that he finds it offensive, the anti-LGBT legislation in Russia, for example. We take very clear and strong stands on that issue, as well as the curtailment of civil society in Russia, as well as the harassment of those who protest corruption in Russia.”
Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel for the organization Human Rights First, told MSNBC on Wednesday that his group was thrilled to hear about the delegation.
“I think that was done intentionally, done to send a message of equality and respect,” he said. “And I think this delegation will be able to show what it’s like to be integrated into society, to be leaders in society.”
The U.S. delegation includes Janet Napolitano, the former Homeland Security secretary and current president of the University of California. Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia, and William J. Burns, deputy secretary of state, are also in the group.
The United States is also sending Olympic speedskating champions Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden and 1988 figure skating champion Brian Boitano.
The Sochi Olympics open Feb. 7.