Europe

Sochi Olympics: Gay athletes to join US delegation

Billie Jean King
Image caption Billie Jean King said she was honoured to represent the LGBT people at Sochi

The US is sending two openly gay sports stars to the Winter Olympics in Sochi as part of its official delegation.

The move is being seen as a challenge to new laws in Russia which ban "propaganda" about homosexuality.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow will represent the US at the opening and closing ceremonies and other events.

President Barack Obama, who is not going, said the delegation "represents the diversity" of the US.

Activists have urged world leaders to boycott the Sochi Games over human rights concerns, despite assurances by Russia President Vladimir Putin that gay athletes will not be discriminated against.

But the Russian law, which bans the promotion of "non-traditional sexual relations"- has raised questions about what could happen to athletes who wear pins or badges or carry flags supporting gay rights.

The White House said in a statement that Mr Obama was "extremely proud of our US athletes and looks forward to cheering them on from Washington".

"He knows they will showcase to the world the best of America - diversity, determination and teamwork."

'Respectful message'

King said she was honoured to have been named.

"I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi and I hope these Olympic Games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people," she said.

Image caption Caitlin Cahow has won two medals for ice hockey at previous winter Olympics

Caitlin Cahow - who won medals at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics - told the American newspaper USA Today that a statement was being made in the composition of the delegation but that it was "an incredibly respectful one".

"Basically, the White House is highlighting Americans who know what it means to have freedoms and liberties under the constitution", she said.

Human rights groups have also welcomed the decision.

"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", said Michael Cole-Schwartz of Human Rights Campaign.

Andre Banks of rights group All Out added that President Obama was sending out a strong message to Mr Putin.

"What it's doing is showing the true power of the Olympics, the ability to move people, to change people's minds and open them up to new ways of thinking. The delegation is shining a light on the values of the Olympics", he said.

The US delegation includes former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, figure skater Brian Boitano and presidential adviser Rob Nabors.

The White House said President Obama's schedule would not permit him to attend the Games.

Earlier this month the presidents of France and Germany announced that they would not be attending but gave no reason for their absence.

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