President Obama sends a message to Russia with his delegation picks for Sochi

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 17, 2013 


Tennis great Billie Jean King


The official U.S. delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia includes two openly gay members -- a direct rebuke to Russia, whose recent anti-propaganda laws are widely viewed as anti-gay.

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will lead the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday.

The delegation also includes tennis legend Billie Jean King, who in 2000 became the first openly lesbian coach of an Olympic team.  

The full line up is a snub to the Russians as it doesn't include either Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, vice president Joe Biden or a sitting member of Obama's Cabinet. (Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden led the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.)

Though Napolitano was a member of the Cabinet, she's now president of the University of California. The U.S. isn't the only country delivering a slight: Top French officials including President Francois Hollande won't be attending the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

That's fueled some speculation that Russia's controversial anti-gay laws could put a severe damper on the games.

Human Rights First, which had urged Obama to appoint lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community leaders to the official delegation to show displeasure with the anti-propaganda law, applauded Obama's choices.

The group said the decision to send prominent LGBT Americans "reflects the administration’s commitment to taking every opportunity to advance a message of tolerance and respect for individual rights and human dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people."

In addition to King and Cahow, the group says the delegation includes "vocal allies," including "some of the Administration’s most visible champions for human rights," such as deputy secretary of state William Burns and U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord said the group believes the delegation "can send a positive message to the LGBT community in Russia, as well as to Russian government officials.

"The selection of this delegation displays to the international community the American values of respect and equality for all, Gaylord said, noting that the exclusion of Obama and Biden "sends a powerful message to the Russian government of the Obama Administration’s opposition to Russia’s crackdown against human rights."

King, who came out in 1998, in 2000 served as coach of the United States women's tennis team. She's also a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Other members of the delegation include McFaul; Robert L. Nabors, assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy; and Brian A. Boitano, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating.

Burns, deputy secretary of state, will lead the delegation to the closing ceremonies. Others in the closing delegation include McFaul; Bonnie Blair, a five-time Olympic gold medalist and one-time bronze medalist in speed skating; Caitlin Cahow, Olympic silver medalist and bronze medalist in women’s ice hockey who is openly gay and Eric Heiden, five-time Olympic gold medalist in speed skating.

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