Former tennis star Billie Jean King, Olympic figure skating
champion Brian Boitano and Olympic ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow
were among a group of prominent Americans named to represent the
United States at the Games' ceremonies.
The White House added to the symbolism when it announced this week
that neither the president, first lady Michelle Obama nor Vice
President Joe Biden would travel to Sochi. The decision was widely
viewed as a snub from a U.S. administration whose relations with
Russia have been strained over a string of diplomatic disputes.
"I think the delegation speaks for itself," Obama told a White House
news conference when asked whether the composition of the U.S.
delegation was meant to send a message.
"The fact that we have got folks like Billie Jean King or Brian
Boitano, who themselves have been world-class athletes that
everybody acknowledges for their excellence, but also for their
character, who also happen to be members of the LGBT community, you
should take that for what it's worth," he said.
"When it comes to the Olympics and athletic performance, we do not
make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation," Obama said.
"We judge people on how they perform, both on the court and off the
court, on the field and off the field."
Their selection has been widely regarded as a rejection of
Russia's laws that include a ban on what it calls the spread of
homosexual propaganda among minors. The laws have been
criticized internationally in the lead-up to the Games, which
open on February 7 in Sochi.
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Obama, speaking about the Russian law in a television interview
in August, said he had "no patience for countries that try to
treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that
intimidate them or are harmful to them."
As for his own decision not to attend, Obama pointed out he had
not gone to Olympics during his presidency and suggested he
would be occupied with domestic priorities, such as dealing with
what has been a flawed roll-out of his healthcare law.
"Attending Olympics, particularly at a time when we have got all
of the stuff that people have been talking about, is going to be
tough," he said. "Although I would love to do it."
The decision was made to have the delegation led by former
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, a lower-ranking
official than has been the case for recent Olympics.
This comes at a time when relations between Obama and Russian
President Vladimir Putin have been under stress because of
differences over Syria, as well as Moscow's granting of
temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor
Edward Snowden, who has leaked U.S. surveillance secrets.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Dan Grebler)
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