By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The United States has named former tennis star Billie Jean King, one of the first prominent athletes to publicly acknowledge her homosexuality, to be in the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Russia's anti-gay policies have stirred controversy.
Although Russia has thrown itself into staging the games, preparations have been overshadowed by international criticism of its human rights record and a recent anti-gay propaganda law that critics say discriminates against homosexuals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said several times that gay athletes are welcome in Russia and that no discrimination will be tolerated. He has said the law is needed to protect young people.
The legislation, however, has drawn calls by human rights activists to boycott the Olympics. German President Joachim Gauck has announced he will not attend the Olympics, even though he went to the 2012 London Olympic games, but he declined to comment on the reason for his decision.
Likewise, France has said that neither President Francois Hollande nor any top French official would attend the Sochi games, also without offering an explanation.
President Barack Obama, speaking about the Russian law in an August television interview, 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."
The U.S. delegation is also led by a lower-ranking official than has been the case for recent Olympic games. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who is now chancellor of the University of California system, will lead the U.S. group, the White House said in a statement.
In contrast, First Lady Michelle Obama headed the U.S. delegation to the 2012 London games and Vice President Joe Biden performed that role for the 2010 winter games in Vancouver.
The White House said the president's schedule did not allow him to travel to Sochi, and declined to say whether it was sending any message through its selection of the delegation.
"The U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism and sports."
The U.S. party also includes Olympic figure skating gold medalist Brian Boitano, presidential aide Rob Nabors, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
The United States has also been unhappy with Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has leaked classified documents revealing the extent of U.S. surveillance of phone and email traffic around the world. (Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Ken Wills)