Message to Russia: Gay former tennis star Billie Jean King will join the US delegation to the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Photo: AP
The slights issuing from the White House to the Russian hosts of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games could not be more studied nor more pointed.
Rather than boycotting the Games in protest at Russia’s new laws against so-called “gay propaganda”, President Barack Obama has announced that he was too busy to attend, and would instead be staying at home in Washington. It has has not been made clear what he will be doing instead.
Then the White House named an official delegation to the Games in Sochi that stood out for two reasons: its lack of senior government officials and the strength of its contingent of prominent gay athletes.
Envoy: Caitlin Cahow (right) practises wth Jenny Potter before the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Cahow, who is gay, will also join the US delegation to Russia's Games. Photo: Reuters
For the first time in 20 years not only will neither the President nor the first lady, nor even the Vice-President, be attending the Winter Olympic Games opening or closing ceremonies, but nor will the delegation be joined by an official from cabinet.
Instead, perhaps the best-known member is Billie Jean King, the winner of 39 grand slam tennis titles and one of the most prominent gay athletes in the world.
In a statement after Mr Obama announced her inclusion, Ms King said, “I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] 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."
Diplomatic controversy: A participant passes on the flame during the Winter Olympic torch relay in Russia last Saturday. Photo: AFP
Another is 28-year-old Caitlin Cahow, a gay ice hockey player, who holds three world championship gold medals and two Olympic medals, and who has been active with Principle 6, a campaign that champions the International Olympic Committee code prohibiting any discrimination at the Games.
"I think it’s a huge moment for the United States – sending openly gay athletes as the representatives of our country," CBS News quoted her as saying. "I can't stress that enough, given the history of the United States and how far LGBT people have come and the understanding and how much our policies and mindset have changed over the years. This is really a spectacular moment.” She took the call from the White House asking for her service as she prepared for a constitutional law exam at Boston College.
A third is the ice skater Brian Boitano, an Olympic figure skating champion. He waited for two days after the announcement that he would be a member of the official party before he issued a statement in which he came out.
"Proud": Brian Boitano competing in 1994. Boitano came out publicly after being invited to join the US delegation. Photo: AP
"First and foremost, I am an American athlete and I am proud to live in a country that encourages diversity, openness and tolerance," he said. "As an athlete, I hope we can remain focused on the Olympic spirit which celebrates achievement in sport by peoples of all nations."
At his end-of-year news conference last week, Mr Obama acknowledged that the membership of the delegation had been designed to send a message to Russia.
"I think the delegation speaks for itself," he said. "The fact that we have got folks like Billie Jean King or Brian Boitano, who themselves have been world-class athletes that everybody acknowledges for their excellence, but also for their character, who also happen to be members of the LGBT community, you should take that for what it's worth.”
On Thursday The Russian organisers have said the President’s decision not to attend was not of concern. "The Olympic Games are the competition of outstanding sportsmen and this is the main reason why they are interesting,” Russian Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov told NBC News. "It's not a summit, which only the country leaders attend. So we’re not really concerned about it."
The US delegation will be led by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Others include the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and presidential adviser Rob Nabors, the highest ranking official of the group.
The announcements comes just two months before the Games are to begin, and at the end of year in which the US and Russia have clashed diplomatically over Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to the fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as well as responses to the Syrian civil war.
In 2012 the first lady, Michelle Obama, attended the Olympic Games in London, while two years earlier both Vice-President Biden and Jill Biden attended the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.