US PRESIDENT BARACK Obama has named openly gay tennis legend Billie Jean King on his delegation to the Winter Olympics amid a storm over a Russian law targeting homosexuals.
The comparatively low key delegation to the Sochi Games, which begin on 7 February, lacks a serving US cabinet member and was unveiled at a time of US tensions with Russia over gay rights and Moscow’s decision to offer refuge to fugitive American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
The group will be led at the Sochi opening ceremonies by former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano and includes King, retired figure skater Brian Boitano, US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors.
The United States will be represented at the closing ceremony by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, McFaul, speed skating legends Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden, and women’s hockey player Caitlin Cahow, who is also openly gay.
Russia’s adoption in June of a disputed law prohibiting the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors has sparked protests from international human rights groups and calls for a boycott of the country’s first post-Soviet Games.
Obama said in August that he had did not agree with the idea of an Olympic boycott but was “really looking forward” to US gay or lesbian athletes bringing home medals, which he said would “go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there.”
“If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then, it’ll probably make their team weaker,” he said.
Putin said in October that Russia would go out of its way to ensure that athletes and fans at the Olympics will feel at ease “regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation.”
King won six Wimbledon singles titles and four US Opens, plus a flurry of doubles crowns, and was outed in a lawsuit after having an affair with another women and said she did not feel comfortable being openly gay until later in life.
Her selection will be hailed in some quarters as a message directly from Obama to Putin. USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan hailed the president’s decision as a “stroke of genius.”
“Think of the millions of Russian citizens who are gay, or have a gay family member or friend, living in a nation where discrimination based on sexual orientation is not only tolerated, but promoted,” Brennan wrote.
“And the US president sends one of the world’s most recognizable faces of equality and inclusion to attend the Opening Ceremony in such a visible role?”