Former U.S. Olympic champion speedskater Bonnie Blair says her invitation to join the presidential delegation to the Winter Olympics didn’t come with a mention from the White House about the thorny politics awaiting them in Russia, which implemented anti-LGBT laws over the past year.
“I really don’t know anything about that,” Blair told BuzzFeed on Wednesday. “I only know that I was asked and that I’m going to be part of it.”
BuzzFeed reported Tuesday that the United States will not be sending any of its top officials — either President or Mrs. Obama or Vice President or Dr. Biden — Sochi Games as part of its delegation.
Instead a former federal official, Janet Napolitano, will lead the presidential delegation, and it will include two out LGBT athletes — Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow. In addition to the Obamas and Bidens not attending the Olympics, no current cabinet members will be a part of the country’s delegation either.
The highest-ranking officials in the delegation will be Rob Nabors, the assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy, attending the opening ceremony, and William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of the State Department, leading the delegation at the closing ceremony.
That mattered little to Blair, a five-time Olympic gold medalist and one-time bronze medalist, who had already planned to attend the Sochi Games in a sponsorship role.
“I already would have been there anyway,” said Blair, who was also a member of the delegation for the Vancouver Games in 2010. “Now I’ll be able to stay a little longer.”
Blair said she didn’t know who was going to be a part of the delegation until the White House’s official press release Tuesday, two days after she received an invitation to be part of the group.
Asked if she suspected any political message in the absence of the top U.S. officials, Blair said: “I just assumed they were pretty busy people and Russia is an awful long way to go for just a couple of days.”
Blair will be member of the delegation to the closing ceremony, which will include Michael A. McFaul, the United States ambassador to the Russian Federation; Cahow, Olympic silver medalist and bronze medalist in women’s ice hockey; and Eric Heiden, five-time Olympic gold medalist in speedskating.
The opening ceremony delegation, meanwhile, will include Napolitano; Nabors; McFaul; King, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, as well as a former Olympic tennis coach; and Brian A. Boitano, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating.
Although Blair was not focused on the politics surrounding LGBT rights in Russia, the two out LGBT members of the delegation were clearly interested in the issues — and the message their attendance could send.
In a written statement released Tuesday, King didn’t shy away from mentioning her LGBT advocacy while expressing gratitude that she was chosen for the delegation.
“I can’t wait to get to Russia to support the American team and to be part of one of the greatest global events of our time,” King said. “I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT 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.”
Cahow similarly discussed her role, telling USA Today on Tuesday, “It’s obviously a statement that’s being made, but I think it’s an incredibly respectful one. Basically, the White House is highlighting Americans who know what it means to have freedoms and liberties under the constitution.”
For her part, Napolitano — the former secretary of the Homeland Security Department who is now the head of the University of California — said in a statement, “It is an honor to represent our country in the company of individuals who have excelled in life and sport.” A spokesman directed questions about the potential impact of Russia’s anti-LGBT laws on the delegation to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“The president of the United States asked her to do this,” Steve Montiel, media relations director for the University of California, said, so Napolitano is going to Sochi — adding that “she feels honored to represent” the U.S. there.
Asked whether Napolitano had any questions regarding the safety of the delegation in light of Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law, he said, “That’s a question best directed to the U.S. Olympic Committee. As long as the athletes are going, she will be going,” he said, because she is there to support them.
Earlier Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney downplayed the intended effect of sending one of the first out LGBT professional athletes in the U.S. — King — to Russia.
Additional reporting by Chris Geidner.