President Obama on Tuesday announced the members of the U.S. official delegation to Sochi, Russia, for next year's Winter Olympics.
The message sent, based on both who is and who isn't going, is as obvious as a Siberian winter.
In a bit of Cold War passive aggressiveness, and one that will add spark to the two nations' sporting rivalry, the United States will send no high-ranking government officials to attend the Games.
The delegation will, however, include two openly gay former athletes in an obvious condemnation of Russia's recently passed legislation that banned "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
That law is seen as part of a far-reaching anti-gay crackdown in Russia that has received considerable international condemnation in the run up to the Olympics.
Tennis great Billie Jean King will be part of the group that attends the high-profile, Feb. 7, 2014, opening ceremonies. Caitlin Cahow, a two-time medalist in ice hockey, will be present for the Feb. 23 closing ceremonies. Both are openly gay.
In a further sign of cooling relations between the two countries, the delegation will not include the sitting President, First Lady or Vice President for the first time since 2000. The highest-ranking government official is Robert L. Nabors, who carries the title of "Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy" and is unknown by all but extreme political junkies.
This is a clear public slap at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is spending more than $50 billion to stage the most expensive games – by far – in history.
His stated goal is to showcase a new, modern Russia. Part of that is by reconstructing much of Sochi, a beach resort town with such a temperate climate that Russia needed to store up snow in recent years to assure the nearby mountains will be operable.
Putin clearly can buy a lot. In this case, he can't buy the approval of the United States, at least on this particular human rights issue.
Obama is expressing his displeasure with the country over gay rights and myriad other issues by making a statement on who he decides to send, rather than to just not send any of his country's athletes. Cold War-era boycotts gutted the 1980 and 1984 Summer Games, held in Moscow and Los Angeles, respectively. They also accomplished little to nothing.
This is, instead, the proper tone, the high road in a dispute where the United States clearly holds the progressive and modern position of inclusion and acceptance. It is also, essentially, a proxy public-relations battle, which Olympic sports have long been used for. Obama and Putin disagree on numerous deep and complex issues – from security to trade to spying and so on. It’s easier for the President to highlight the divide on this issue, which polls show has the majority support of the American public.
"I hope these Olympics will be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people," King said via Twitter.
What better "propaganda" is there for the acceptance and respect of homosexuals than by showcasing successful, powerful and uplifting gay athletes – with the full and complete support of the White House behind them?
What more pointed image is there than putting King, the indomitable and pioneering athlete and activist, who is known and respected around the globe, wrapped in the red, white and blue?
"It's obviously a statement that's being made, but I think it's an incredibly respectful one," said Cahow, currently a law student at Boston College, according to USA Today. "Basically, the White House is highlighting Americans who know what it means to have freedoms and liberties under the constitution. That's really what we're representing in Sochi, and it's not at all different from what's espoused in the spirit of Olympism."
It could also help rekindle the sporting divide between the United States and Russia, each of which used the Olympics as a tool for propaganda and patriotism throughout the Cold War.
Some of it was painful. Some of it was pitiful. Some of it could actually be looked back on with some nostalgic entertainment – the belief on both sides of rigged judging, cheating and favoritism. It manifested itself out in memorable East vs. West clashes that ranged from pixie gymnasts to toothless hockey players to PED-riddled power lifters.
If nothing else, this adds a bit of extra spice to these Winter Games, particularly men's hockey for which the two nations will send their NHL stars and there's immense pressure on the Russians to redeem themselves from a poor Vancouver Games and win gold on home ice.
For Obama, that seems like a secondary concern. He needed to make a statement on Russia's anti-gay legislation. It would have been wrong for the United States to just quietly accept and ignore an affront to the gay athletes and their supporters who will compete for America in February.
This much is indisputable: Billie Jean King representing the United States in Sochi is a message that is impossible to ignore.
- Politics & Government
- President Obama
- United States
- Billie Jean King