WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama named openly gay athletes to the delegation that will represent the U.S. next year at opening and closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, sending a clear signal to Russia about its treatment of gays and lesbians.
Tennis champion Billie Jean King will join the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony, while Caitlin Cahow, a women's ice hockey player and Olympic medalist, will represent the U.S. at the closing ceremony. Both athletes have identified publicly as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
White House spokesman Shin Inouye said that the delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States" and that Obama was proud to cheer America's athletes on at the 2014 Olympic Games.
"He knows they will showcase to the world the best of America — diversity, determination and teamwork," Inouye said.
The decision follows a public campaign by gay rights groups to urge the White House to include gays, lesbians and their supporters in the delegation in hopes of drawing attention to Russia's national laws banning "gay propaganda." Those laws and the broader issue of discrimination against the LGBT community in Russia have become a flash point as the world looks to next year's Olympic Games in Sochi.
The Human Rights Campaign, one of the groups that wrote the White House last month asking Obama to include gays and lesbians in the delegation, applauded the unveiling of the delegation Tuesday.
"It's a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation," said spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz. "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."
On other fronts, the 2014 delegation appears to be a step back from previous years, when the U.S. sent top-level administration officials to represent the U.S. at the Olympic ceremonies. First lady Michelle Obama led the delegation to the London Games in 2012, while Vice President Joe Biden headed the effort in 2010 in Vancouver.
Obama's schedule will not permit him to attend the games in Sochi in February, the White House said.
In Sochi, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will lead the delegation to the opening ceremony. A former Arizona governor, Napolitano left the Obama administration earlier this year to take over as president of the University of California system. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, figure skater Brian Boitano and presidential adviser Rob Nabors will round out the delegation.
At the closing ceremony, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will lead the delegation, joined by McFaul, Cahow and speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden. Cahow, Blair, Heiden and Boitano are Olympic medal-winners, while King has coached U.S. Olympic teams.