SOCHI, Russia – So when an American president snubs the host of the Winter Olympics by sending no one in a position of executive authority to lead the official delegation, where does that leave the people who actually do have to make the trip to the games?
“I don’t think we’re chopped liver,” said Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security, current president of the University of California system, and head of the U.S. delegation to the Sochi Winter Olympics. It was noon on Friday, she and the other members were standing on a terrace of a hotel overlooking the sun-glinted Black Sea, as Russian navy ships patrolled just offshore, and they were trying to find just the right words to describe their role, without making too big a show of it.
Two of those in the delegation are openly gay former Olympians – the skater Brian Boitano and the hockey player Caitlin Cahow – and they were supposed to have been joined by Billie Jean King, the gay tennis player, except that her mother’s illness kept her at home. Given a new Russian law that prohibits gay “propaganda” if children might be exposed to it, their selection was not an accident.
“I don’t feel like we have to say anything,” Boitano said. “Everyone knows why we’re here. We’re proud to come from a country that supports tolerance and diversity.”
“It’s not a bad time,” said Cahow, to provoke discussion “around the world” about the status of gays.
“If there’s a message,” Napolitano said, “it’s an obvious one, that we are an open and tolerant country.”
U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul was in the unusual position of being a diplomat who could speak more bluntly than the others. Two days ago, he said, he met with Russian human rights activists.
“We’ve made our message very clear,” he said. “We are concerned about the reversal or constraints on anyone’s human rights. We consider the new law a reversal of human rights.”
The delegation is here only until Sunday. Napolitano said their Russian hosts had made them feel completely welcome, and showed no signs of resenting the absence of President Obama or the message he was clearly sending.
“In every Olympics there’s a certain amount of politics and political difference that goes into it,” she said.
As for this week’s warning by her former agency about potentially explosive toothpaste tubes on board aircraft, she said she wasn’t privy to current intelligence. Yes, she said, she had been able to bring her own toothpaste to the Olympics. She said she felt the ubiquitous security effort at Sochi was not out of line with that at Vancouver, in 2010, or at other similar types of events.
As governor of Arizona, she said, she helped host the 2008 Super Bowl, and there were months of planning for high-level and intensive security. “Securing large complicated venues is a large, complicated task,” she said. But once the game was played, no one had another thought about it.