Obama Snubs 2014 Sochi Russia Winter Olympics, Approves U.S. Delegation of Openly Gay Athletes

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By Esther Tanquintic-Misa | December 19, 2013 2:57 PM EST

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced he will not be attending the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Moreover, he has approved to send a U.S. delegation that includes two openly gay athletes, in what seemed to be a strong and open message of solidarity with others against Russian President Vladimir Putin's anti-homosexual laws.

Tennis great Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow, two highly respected LGBT athletes, will represent the U.S. in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

"The U.S. Delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday. "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."

People hold a placard and rainbow flags as they call on the Russian authorities to lift anti-gay laws ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympics during a protest outside the Russian embassy in Berlin, December 12, 2013. Russian gay rights advocates called for increased pressure on the International Olympic Committee ahead of the 2014 winter games in Sochi in light of Russia's anti-gay laws, telling a gathering on Wednesday that anti-gay violence is increasing. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Human rights groups in the U.S. lauded the decision of the president not to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"It sets the right tone in terms of the inclusion of LGBT folks," Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First, an international advocacy group based in New York and Washington, said. "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."

Read: German President to Snub 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics - Report

Mr Carney, aiming to douse political tongues to fan already blazing fires, cleared Mr Obama won't be attending the Winter Olympics simply because his schedule "does not allow him to travel to Sochi."

Instead, "a high level" delegation led by former Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano will be sent on Mr Obama's behalf, which include:

  • Janet A. Napolitano, president of the University of California, will lead the delegation.
  • Michael A. McFaul, United States ambassador to the Russian Federation.
  • Robert L. Nabors, assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy.
  • Billie Jean King, member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • Brian A. Boitano, Olympic gold medalist, figure skating.

Presidential delegation to the closing ceremony Feb. 23.

  • William J. Burns, deputy secretary of State, will lead the delegation.
  • Michael A. McFaul, United States ambassador to the Russian Federation.
  • Bonnie Blair, five-time Olympic gold medalist and one-time bronze medalist, speed skating.
  • Caitlin Cahow, Olympic silver medalist and bronze medalist, women's ice hockey.
  • Eric Heiden, five-time Olympic gold medalist, speed skating.

This marks the first time however that a U.S. president, vice president, first lady or former president will not be a member of the delegation nor present for the Olympic's opening ceremony, scheduled on Feb 7 in Sochi.

Michelle Obama led the delegation in London in 2012. President Bush in 2008 attended the Beijing Olympics. He also attended the opening ceremony for the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. Former president George H.W. Bush meantime was part of delegations to the 2008 and 2004 Games.

"President Obama is extremely proud of our U.S. athletes and looks forward to cheering them on from Washington," a statement released by the White House said. "He knows they will showcase to the world the best of America -- diversity, determination and teamwork."

"I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi," Ms King said in a statement on Wednesday. "I hope these Olympic Games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people."

"It's obviously a statement that's being made, but I think it's an incredibly respectful one," Ms 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."

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