WASHINGTON – If Stephen Harper or Barack Obama plan to do any Olympics-watching next February, they’ll be staring at a screen and not from the stands.
The Canadian and American leaders both announced Wednesday that they will not be attending the Games, prompting speculation of an international snub over Russia’s gay-rights record.
Harper’s office announced the news discreetly, in a late-evening email. The message from the Prime Minister’s Office noted that Harper has gone to only one Olympics since he took office, and that lone exception was for obvious reasons.
“He normally does not attend (Vancouver was an exception because Canada was the host),” a prime ministerial spokesman said in an email.
That news came several hours after the United States delivered a more conspicuous message.
For the first time since 2000, the U.S. will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice-president to the Games.
Also, the small U.S. delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies will include two openly gay athletes.
Those athletes, tennis legend Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, will be joined by figure skater Brian Boitano, former cabinet secretary Janet Napolitano, a presidential advisor, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
An Obama spokesman was asked at the daily White House press briefing whether the delegation was intended to make a political point.
While he said such a message would not be sent “through this manner,” his response also repeatedly referred to “diversity” – a word Obama’s spokesman mentioned seven times in his answers.
“This delegation represents the diversity that is the United States,” said presidential spokesman Jay Carney.
“Every member of that delegation is extremely accomplished, either in government service or in civic activism or, most especially, in sports. So he’s very proud of the delegation and the diversity it represents. And he looks forward, as every American does, to the competition and to the effort that American athletes will demonstrate when they compete in Sochi.”
Obama’s spokespeople said his schedule would not allow him to attend.
However, Carney also added that the president has been clear that he “finds it offensive, the anti-LGBT legislation in Russia,” as well as the harassment caused to those who protest corruption there.
Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning “gay propaganda.”
For its part, the Canadian government said its delegation choices will be announced soon.
When asked whether they should be interpreted as carrying a human-rights message, Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald replied: “No. We’re not in a position to comment on who our representatives will be.”
France and Germany are among the other countries who will not send their presidents to Sochi for the Games.
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.
Bach had previously said he’d received assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that gays will not be discriminated against in Sochi.
On Thursday, Putin reiterated those assurances, saying it is Russia’s responsibility as host of the Games to ensure equal conditions for all the athletes.
“The main thing for us is the good organization of these competitions, the creation of equal terms for all athletes,” he told a Moscow news conference.
But the Russian law has raised questions about what could happen to athletes who wear pins or badges or carry flags supporting gay rights.
The U.S. Olympic Committee made no comment about the sexual orientation of the delegation Wednesday.
In a nod to its disapproval of the law, however, the USOC recently revised its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation.
Earlier this year, Obama rejected the idea of a U.S. boycott of the Olympics despite a number of differences with Russia, including the anti-gay law.
Wednesday’s announcement, however, represented an unmistakable break with recent precedent: In Vancouver, Vice-President Joe Biden led the delegation, and in 2012, first lady Michelle Obama held the honour.
The announcement prompted an enthusiastic response from the Human Rights Campaign, which recently sent a letter urging Obama to include gays and lesbians in the U.S. delegation.
“It’s a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation,” said spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz.
“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 made an explicit point about human rights Wednesday, saying she was “deeply honoured” to be named to the delegation.
“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.
King, who won Wimbledon 20 times in singles and doubles categories, will attend the opening ceremony.
- With files from The Associated Press.
© The Canadian Press, 2013