The White House announced Tuesday that President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the first lady will not attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February, a pointed snub by an administration that is feuding with Russian leaders on a range of foreign policy and human rights issues.
The U.S. delegation will be led by a former Cabinet secretary and a deputy secretary of state, and will include two openly gay athletes — tennis legend Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow — in an apparent bid to highlight opposition to Russia’s anti-homosexual laws.
It marks the first time since the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000 that a U.S. Olympics delegation did not include a president, first lady or vice president. The White House made the announcement in a news release late Tuesday.
Officials said Obama’s schedule would not permit him to attend the Games during a two-week period beginning Feb. 7, although they did not specify what the president would be doing instead. Obama, a major sports fan, is “extremely proud” of the U.S. team and “looks forward to cheering them on from Washington,” White House spokesman Shin Inouye said in a statement.
The U.S. delegation “represents the diversity that is the United States,” Inouye said. “All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism, and sports.”
In keeping top officials away from Sochi, the United States joins France and Germany among the nations whose senior government leaders will not attend. The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights groups, hailed the announcement and called Russia’s anti-gay laws “heinous.”
“The inclusion of gay athletes is incredibly important and sends a potent message about the inclusive nature of our democracy,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the group.
The Obama administration’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has deteriorated this year as the two countries have clashed on several issues. The United States blamed Russia, along with China, for blocking a United Nations resolution authorizing potential military intervention in Syria in the summer, and the two countries have failed to agree on a pact for broader nuclear disarmament.
The White House also was angered by Russia’s decision to grant temporary political asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents detailing the United States’ broad spying apparatus.
In September, Obama canceled a planned bilateral meeting with Putin ahead of an economic summit in St. Petersburg. Among other things, he cited Russia’s anti-gay laws, passed in June, that ban the distribution of any materials to minors that suggest homosexual relationships are normal or attractive.
The president met at the summit with civil rights activist instead.
During a news conference in August, Obama said he did not believe it was appropriate for the United States to boycott the Winter Games altogether, as it did in 1980 by staying away from the Summer Games in Moscow following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“We’ve got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed,” he said. “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.”
Obama added that he hoped some openly gay or lesbian athletes would win a medal, which would “go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there. And if Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then it probably makes their team weaker.”
Cahow, a two-time Olympian, said in an interview with Go Athletes that she believed it made sense for United States to compete in the Sochi Games, comparing it to the example of Jesse Owens, the black track and field star who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany.
“He demonstrated the greatness of who he was as an African-American athlete,” she said.” It’s precisely the same philosophy we should be taking to Russia. I don’t think any athletes are going to go over there just to protest Russian policy. That makes no sense. They’re going to go over there because they want to compete.”
Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security who is now the president of the University of California system, will head the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremonies, while Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will head the delegation for the closing ceremonies.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and Obama aide Rob Nabors are also scheduled to attend, along with Olympic medalists Bonnie Blair, Brian Boitano and Eric Heiden.