Obama Includes Openly Gay Athletes in Olympic Delegation, Will Not Go To Sochi

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden won't be jaunting off to Russia for the Sochi Olympics in February, the White House announced Wednesday. In a brilliant jab at Russia's anti-gay laws, a special delegation, led by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, will be going in their place. The delegation will include openly gay former tennis champion Billie Jean King, and the openly gay two-time Olympian hockey player Caitlin Cahow. King will represent the United States at the Opening Ceremony of the games, and Cahow will represent at the Closing Ceremony.

"It's hard to look at this delegation without seeing it as a criticism of Putin's anti-gay laws," said Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, an LGBTQ rights group that's been vocal about the Olympics. "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."

Ahead of the games, Russia has been attracting criticism for enacting anti-gay policies, which ban so-called anti gay "propaganda" and make public displays of homosexual affection all but illegal. LGBT activists have put renewed pressure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make sure that the upcoming 2014 games in Sochi, Russia will be a safe place for gay athletes and allies. But the IOC has mostly taken a passive stance when it comes to Russian policies. As Bustle reported:

Since the [anti-gay] law was passed, activists say, there’s been an increase in anti-gay violence in Russia.

“The environment is becoming increasingly hostile, with private meetings broken into, gay clubs attacked and various homophobic groups calling for violence against LGBT people,” said Anastasia Smirnova, a spokeswoman for several LGBT groups in Russia.

Some are comparing the IOC’s stance on Sochi to the 1936 Olympics, when the Olympic committee chose Berlin to host the summer Olympics … despite a certain Nazi government. It’s a ”matter of domestic policy,” the IOC said at the time. History, man.

Either way, this year’s Olympics are sure to be full of demonstrations — even if Putin is trying to ban those too. (As well as this bizarre list of things.)

While the White House never mentioned the anti-gay laws directly in its announcement, spokesperson Shin Inouye said the delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States."

"[Obama] knows they will showcase to the world the best of America – diversity, determination, and teamwork." Inouye said. "All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism, and sports.”

Some see the inclusion of the athletes as the United States' long-awaited response to Russia's discriminatory policies. In August, President Obama 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,” but he's issued no direct condemnation of Russia.

"The inclusion of gay athletes is incredibly important and sends a potent message about the inclusive nature of our democracy,” said Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz. The organization had written the White House last month to ask Obama to include openly gay members in its delegation.

With Russian-American relations already shaky, these Olympic games will be the first time a White Houses' key players have not attended an Olympic game since 2000's Sydney Games in Australia. For the 2012 London Games, Michelle Obama headed the delegation, and in 2010, Vice President Joe Biden took charge in Vancouver. The presidents of France and Germany, Francois Hollande and Joachim Gauck, will also not be attending.