For the first time in recent history, the United States will not be sending its President, the Vice President, the First Lady, or a former President to the Winter Olympics. Instead, Obama has chosen a delegation with three gay Olympians.
The announcement came earlier this week that President Obama would not be attending the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next year. Instead, he has chosen a delegation that features tennis great Billie Jean King and ice hockey player and Olympic silver and bronze medalist Caitlin Cahow. Both are openly lesbian. In addition, Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano has just confirmed he is gay.
King is a 39-time Grand Slam title winner, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is also regarded as one of the most prominent advocates for greater gender equality in sports.
In a statement, King said of her inclusion in the delegation, “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.”
King has previously spoken out against Russia’s propaganda law that bans public advocacy of LGBT rights. While the United States’ Olympic authority has not directly spoken about the ban, it recently announced that it had adopted an explicit policy against sexual orientation discrimination despite the fact that the IOC has refused to take any significant stand against the law. In fact, the IOC has warned athletes that they will be disciplined if they dare to speak out against the law.
King will lead the delegation for the opening ceremony alongside former Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano and U.S. Ambassador Michael A. McFaul. They are joined by Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Robert L. Nabors, and the aforementioned Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano.
The closing ceremony in which Cahow will feature also includes Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns alongside five-time Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair, and five-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden.
The fact that President Obama will not be attending the games and that he has sent a gay-inclusive delegation has been seen as a clear protest of Russia’s human rights roll back, and in particular the now infamous “gay propaganda” law.
It comes as a number of world leaders have announced they will not be attending Sochi, in part to protest Russia’s devolving human rights situation.
An aide to French President Francois Hollande said on Sunday that the president would not be attending the games. This comes just over a week after the German President, Joachim Gauck, also announced his decision not to attend. Hollande has not officially said why he will not be attending the games, but it is understood that international human rights groups are heavily lobbying European leaders to boycott.
The European Commission Vice President responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, has also announced she will not be attending the games, saying she “certainly [would] not go to Sochi as long as minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation.”
So what to make of this? Given the IOC’s inability to even address the discrimination unfolding in Russia, moving the games always appeared out of the question. It was also unfavorable given that it would isolate Russia’s LGBT community and probably serve to lionize Putin. Athletes boycotting the games would also have been ineffective and, arguably, unfair given the high price for choosing not to attend.
However, world leaders opting to boycott the games is a different matter. In sending a gay-inclusive delegation in his stead, Obama appears to be protesting Russia’s anti-gay law in a way that harms no one but at the same time sends a clear message. It also ensures that the media cannot gloss over the protest and probably will have to mention the significance of the gay-inclusive delegation, meaning Russia’s human rights violations won’t be easily glossed over as has happened with other countries in previous games.
International LGBT rights groups are now calling on other high ranking officials to also boycott the games.