Two openly gay athletes will be a part of the U.S. Olympic delegation attending the Sochi Olympics in February, President Obama announced Tuesday.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King and women’s ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow will join a delegation selected by the president to represent the White House during the opening and closing ceremonies of the games. Obama will not be attending.
King, 70, is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and has won 39 Grand Slam titles. Although she was never an Olympian herself, King coached U.S. Olympic tennis squads. She was also the first major female athlete to come out as a lesbian in 1981.
“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,” King said in a statement Tuesday.
The delegations will be led by former Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano and deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and will include former Olympians Brian Boitano, Bonnie Blair, and Eric Heiden. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Robert Nabors, the president’s deputy chief of staff for policy, will also be a part of the delegation.
The announcement suggests the White House is sending a subtle message to the world about Russia’s controversial “anti-propaganda” law that targets the country’s LGBT community, and that has led human rights groups to denounce the United States’ participation in the Olympic games.
However, the president refused to boycott the games. Speaking at a news conference in August, he said, “I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics. We’ve got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed.”
French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck said earlier this month they will not attend the games, though neither have confirmed their decisions were due to Russia’s anti-LGBT laws.
But as Rachel Maddow pointed out on MSNBC Tuesday night, leaders of the U.S. delegation in year’s past have included high-profile political figures – an indication that the president was sending a message with his selection to Vladimir Putin.
“The combination of having openly gay people in the delegation and pointedly not sending any high-ranking, high-profile people from our government–it does seem, at least, like a particularly satisfying snub,” Maddow said.
In a statement Wednesday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest rejected the suggestion that Obama’s announcement implied a boycott of the games. “While the President’s schedule doesn’t allow him to travel to Sochi, in his stead, the President has asked a high-level delegation… to represent the United States Government at the opening ceremonies.”