WASHINGTON President Barack Obama made clear on Friday that his inclusion of three openly gay athletes in the official U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi was intended to send a pointed message to Russia, where anti-gay laws have drawn Western criticism.
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.
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)