Obamas, Biden to Skip the Winter Olympics in Russia

Photographer: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images

The Iceberg figure-skating and short-track venue arena stands in Olympic Park in Sochi. Close

The Iceberg figure-skating and short-track venue arena stands in Olympic Park in Sochi.

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Photographer: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images

The Iceberg figure-skating and short-track venue arena stands in Olympic Park in Sochi.

 
By David Nakamura
     Dec. 18 (Washington Post) -- The White House announced
Tuesday that President Obama, Vice President 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 it 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-gay laws.
     This will mark the first time since the Summer Games in
Sydney in 2000 that a U.S. Olympic 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 group, 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 Russian 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 activists
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 after 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 J. 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.
     david.nakamura@washpost.com

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