Amid concerns over the anti-gay climate in Russia, the White House announced on Tuesday the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi wouldn’t include either the Obama or the Biden families, but instead two accomplished members of the LGBT community.
Billie Jean King, a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was tapped as one of five members of the delegation for the opening ceremony. For the closing ceremonies, lesbian ice hockey Olympian Caitlin Cahow, was named as part of the five-member delegation.
In the announcement on Tuesday, no member of the first or second families was named as part of the delegation for the opening or closing ceremony. Also, no statement from Obama or any White House official accompanied the announcement.
Instead, Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system and former secretary of homeland security, was tapped to the lead the delegation for the opening ceremony. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was selected to lead the delegation for the closing ceremony.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in a follow-up email to the Blade that Obama is proud of U.S. athletes and will root for them even though 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 as they compete in the best traditions of the Olympic spirit,” Inouye said. “He knows they will showcase to the world the best of America – diversity, determination, and teamwork.”
Inouye maintained Obama has sent a “high-level delegation” to Sochi in his place that includes several individuals who served or have once served in the administration.
“The U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States,” Inouye said. “All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism, and sports. We are proud of each and every one of them and think they will serve as great ambassadors of the United States to the Olympic Games.”
The White House announced King and Cahow would take part in the delegation after the U.S.-based international rights group Human Rights First called on the administration to include LGBT people as part of the delegation. The call was echoed by other LGBT groups: the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, All Out and the Council for Global Equality.
Concerns over the anti-LGBT record in Russia consist of the country’s recently passed law barring pro-gay propaganda to minors, another prohibiting same-sex couples in foreign countries from adopting Russian children and continuing reports of anti-LGBT hostility and violence in the country.
Shawn Gaylord, advisory counsel to Human Rights First, praised the Obama administration for taking the organization’s advice about the inclusion of LGBT leaders in the U.S. delegation to the Olympics.
“We are pleased to see the Obama administration take action in line with our recommendations to have LGBT people included in the delegation and believe this can send a positive message to the LGBT community in Russia, as well as to Russian government officials,” Gaylord said. “The selection of this delegation displays to the international community the American values of respect and equality for all.”
Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said the absence of the Obamas and the Bidens from the delegation was appropriate as was the inclusion of LGBT figures.
“We are pleased that the delegation is at a lower level than might otherwise be expected and that it includes such an important LGBT sports legend,” Bromley said. ”In both respects, we hope the delegation’s composition and its members will give voice to our country’s disdain for Russia’s persecution of its LGBT citizens.”
Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, also commended the White House for its choices regarding the Olympics delegation.
“Given Russia’s deplorable law against LGBT people, the makeup of this delegation is entirely appropriate,” Cole-Schwartz said. “Particularly the inclusion of openly gay athletes sends a message to the world that the U.S. values the civil and human rights of LGBT people.”
The Obamas’ decision not to attend the Olympics in 2014 — unlike in 2012, when Michelle Obama led the delegation to the London Olympics — follows the announcement by several world leaders that they would skip the games. Notably, the announcement from the White House came less than two months ahead of the games; an announcement was made four months ahead of time for the 2012 Olympics in London.
The Belgian press reported on Tuesday that Belgian and Flemish Prime Ministers, Elio Di Rupo and Kris Peeters, have no plans to attend the Winter Olympics. Without explaining the decision further, French President Francois Hollande and other French officials announced they wouldn’t attend the Olympics. German President Joachim Gauck and European Union commissioner Viviane Reding earlier made similar announcements.
In an August interview, the Blade asked King whether she feels athletes should boycott the Olympics over the anti-gay atmosphere in country. Recalling Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in the air as they stood on the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, King said athletes should decide for themselves.
“The athletes who have the most to derive from it and the least to derive from it if they don’t go, I think they should get the vote,” she said. “This is the Olympics. This is about the athletes and the fans, so it’s a really hard call.”
Michael K. Lavers contributed to this report.