The White House delivered a strong message of opposition to Russia's anti-gay laws Tuesday with the announcement of its delegation to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.
The White House delegation will include an openly gay athlete: tennis great Billie Jean King.
It will not include the president, first lady or the vice president, all who headed the previous four Olympic delegations, or a cabinet secretary, only a former one. This marks the first Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Summer Games that a U.S. president, vice president, first lady or former president has not been a member of the delegation for the opening ceremony, which will be Feb. 7 in Sochi.
A statement from the White House said President Obama's schedule doesn't allow him to travel to Sochi. "President Obama is extremely proud of our U.S. athletes and looks forward to cheering them on from Washington," the statement said. "He knows they will showcase to the world the best of America -- diversity, determination and teamwork."
The delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States," the statement said.
Gay rights groups viewed the announcement as a strong statement. Andre Banks, the executive director of All Out, said, "It's hard to look at this delegation without seeing it as a criticism of Putin's anti-gay laws. … What it's doing is showing the true power of the Olympics, the ability to move people, to change people's minds and open them up to new ways of thinking. The delegation is shining a light on the values of the Olympics."
Also absent will be French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck, who announced earlier that they will not attend the Sochi Games.
In London in 2012, Michelle Obama led a delegation that included Olympians Dominique Dawes, Brandi Chastain and others. In 2008, President Bush attended the Beijing Olympics. In 2002, President Bush also attended the opening ceremony for the Salt Lake City Winter Games, as is the custom for a head of state to attend a home Olympics. And former president George H.W. Bush was part of delegations to the 2008 and 2004 Games.
The delegation to Sochi will attend events, meet with U.S. athletes and attend the opening ceremony. Janet Napolitano, the former Secretary of Homeland Security and current president of the University of California, will lead the team. It also includes figure skater Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion.
The delegation for the closing ceremony on Feb. 23 will include Caitlin Cahow, a two-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey, who is also openly gay. Bonnie Blair, five-time Olympic gold medalist in speedskating, and Eric Heiden, five-time Olympic gold medalist in speedskating, are also members of the delegation.
Cahow, a law school student at Boston College, was studying for her Constitutional Law exam (talk about irony) when the White House released the names of the delegation.
"It's obviously a statement that's being made, but I think it's an incredibly respectful one," Cahow told USA TODAY Sports. "Basically, the White House is highlighting Americans who know what it means to have freedoms and liberties under the constitution. That's really what we're representing in Sochi and it's not at all different from what's espoused in the spirit of Olympism.
"So I think it's just a great group of people. I can't believe I've been named one of them because it's a remarkable roster and I just think that we're going to represent what the best America can be. Hopefully, it will unify all of Team USA and send a message of love and acceptance to the world."
Human rights groups applauded Obama's decision after Russian parliament passed a law in June, barring "propaganda" about "nontraditional sexual relations" as a means of protecting children.
"It sets the right tone in terms of the inclusion of LGBT folks," said Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First, an international advocacy group based in New York and Washington. "We also agreed that sending the president, vice president and members of that delegation who would be at that level, that was not the right level to be representing the United States. We appreciate that decision and we believe it's the right one."
"Having two prominent LBGT athletes in Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow guarantees that the U.S. will not shy away from supporting the LGBT community while in Sochi," said Hudson Taylor, the founder of Athlete Ally, which is focused on ending homophobia in sports. Athlete Ally and All Out recently launched a campaign focused on Principle 6 of the Olympic charter, which says sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.
The International Olympic Committee has said it has received assurances from the Russian government that athletes and spectators will not face discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The president of the Sochi organizing committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, told USA TODAY Sports last month that there will be no repercussions at the Olympics for anyone who wears rainbow pins or makes other small gestures in response to the legislation. Russian president Vladimir Putin has banned rallies and demonstrations for the period around the Olympics and Paralympics, but IOC president Thomas Bach said last week there will be special protest zones during the Winter Games in Sochi.
The White House's move is the latest episode in a tense relationship between the two countries. President Obama canceled a September meeting with Putin in Moscow in response to Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The rare diplomatic snub was viewed as a response to other issues, including missile defense and human rights (the ban of U.S. adoptions of Russian children and anti-gay legislation).
Though the White House did not address the reasons behind the make-up of the Sochi delegation, Obama has been outspoken about what he's called Russia's retreat into a "Cold War mentality."