In what will be viewed largely as a response to Russia's discriminatory anti-gay laws, President Barack Obama has selected former tennis great Billie Jean King and former hockey player Caitlin Cahow, who are both lesbian, as part of the delegation to represent the White House at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
Obama made the announcement Tuesday. King will represent the United States in the opening ceremony, while Cahow will be part of the delegation for the closing ceremony.
The White House's official release included the following:
“An impressive group of officials and iconic athletes will represent our government at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. We’re honored to assist their participation in any way that we can and certain that America’s elite athletes will put on a great show.”
The move from the White House is seen as a clear and strong denouncement of Russian laws that prohibit the promotion of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors. Signed in June by president Vladimir Putin, the laws ban public displays of affection between non-heterosexual couples and even the discussion of same-sex relationships in an effort to curb their exposure to children. Penalties for violations of those laws include jail time, fines and other punitive damages.
Since those laws came into effect, many have wondered what that would entail for Olympians from other countries who are traveling to Sochi. The Russian government has sent mixed signals on this front, with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko threatening to jail gay athletes if they violate the laws.
As outcry worldwide has increased, there have been multiple calls to action from civil rights groups. In October, multiple protesters took to New York City and called for an outright boycott of the Winter Games. While the Obama administration has refused to take that strong of a stand, the President's recent actions have clarified his disapproval of the law.
The Sochi Games will be the first time since 2000 that the United States has not sent a major political leader to the Olympics. First Lady Michelle Obama led the delegation at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and Vice President Joe Biden did the same at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
German president Joachim Gauck and French president Francois Hollande have also chosen to boycott the event, per CNN's Mark Morgenstein. Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Michael Cole-Schwartz told the Associated Press' Eddie Pells that Obama's decision to have King and Cahow represent the U.S. was a huge step.
"It's a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation," Cole-Schwartz said. "Hopefully it sends a message to the Russian people and the rest of the world that the United States values the civil and human rights of LGBT people."
King is one of the most recognizable gay athletes in the world. Her victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973 was seen as a watershed moment for equal treatment of women in sports, and she has been a staunch advocate for LGBT rights as well. Earlier this year she was one of the first inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
King told the AP's Pells, "I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT 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,"
Cahow, 28, is retired from hockey. She was a member of the United States' bronze-medal-winning team in 2006 and their silver-medal run in 2010.
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