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Obama's gay rights message for Russia: I'm not going to Sochi Winter Olympics, but Billie Jean King is

Barack Obama has sent Russia a clear message about its treatment of gays and lesbians with his choices to represent the United States at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Tennis great Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes in the US delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies, President Obama announced.

But for the first time since 2000, the US will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the games.

Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning "gay propaganda".

The White House did not specifically address the Russian laws in making its announcement, but spokesman Shin Inouye said the delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States" and that Mr Obama "knows they will showcase to the world the best of America - diversity, determination and teamwork".

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

"It's a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group which recently sent a letter urging Mr Obama to include gays and lesbians in the delegation.

"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."

King, who will attend the opening ceremony, said she was "deeply honoured".

"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," she said.

Hockey player Caitlin Cahow is the other openly gay representative to the delegation. She will attend the closing ceremony.

The US Olympic Committee made no comment about the sexual orientation of the delegation, but in a nod to its disapproval of the law, the body recently revised its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation.

France and Germany are among the other countries who will not send their presidents to Sochi.

Earlier this year Mr Obama rejected the idea of a US boycott of the winter games despite a number of differences with Russia, including the anti-gay law.

This move, however, sends a strong signal: in 2010, Vice President Joe Biden led the delegation, and in 2012, first lady Michelle Obama held the honour.

This year's group is led by former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano. Others in the delegation include US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, figure skater Brian Boitano and presidential adviser Rob Nabors.

King might be the most recognisable face in the group. She is a 39-time Grand Slam title winner (singles, doubles and mixed), a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and one of the most prominent advocates of equality for women in sports and society over the past several decades.

She will attend the Olympics in a country that is creating tension for several key players because of the laws, including the International Olympic Committee, which awarded the Games to Russia.

Earlier this month IOC president Thomas Bach said Russia would set up public protest zones in Sochi for "people who want to express their opinion or want to demonstrate for or against something".

Meanwhile, the IOC approved a letter going out to athletes reminding them to refrain from protests or political gestures during the Sochi games - reiterating Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which forbids demonstrations on Olympic grounds.

Mr Bach previously said he had received assurances from Russian president Vladimir Putin that gays would not be discriminated against in Sochi. But the Russian law has raised questions about what could happen to athletes who wear pins or badges or carry flags supporting gay rights.

Earlier this autumn, skier Bode Miller was one of the few American athletes to speak out against the Russian law, calling it "absolutely embarrassing".

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