The United States has selected two homosexual athletes to represent the country during opening and closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Russia’s anti-gay policies have stirred controversy.
The US delegation will include former tennis star Billie Jean King, one of the first prominent athletes to publicly acknowledge her homosexuality, and openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow, the White House revealed on Tuesday.
“The US delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States,” White House deputy spokesperson Josh Earnest said. “All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism and sports.”
King said she was “deeply honoured” to be named to the delegation, noting: “I hope these Olympic Games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people.”
Preparations for the 2014 Games have been overshadowed by international criticism of Russia’s human-rights record and its recent anti-gay propaganda law, which threatens to prosecute anyone who promotes homosexuality to minors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who maintains the law is necessary to protect young people, has said several times that gay athletes are welcome in Russia and that no discrimination will be tolerated.
Leaders not attending
The legislation, however, has spurred human-rights activists to call for a boycott of the Olympics.
German President Joachim Gauck has announced he will not attend the Olympics, although he declined to say why, and France has similarly said that neither President Francois Hollande nor any top French official would attend the Sochi Games.
For the first time since 2000, the US will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Games, with the White House saying Barack Obama’s schedule would not permit him to attend.
Instead, former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano will lead the US group.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group, called the inclusion of King and Cahow in the US delegation “a positive sign”.
“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 [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] people,” Cole-Schwartz said.
The US delegation to the opening ceremony also includes Olympic figure-skating gold medallist Brian Boitano, presidential aide Rob Nabors and Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia .