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Obama sending gay athletes to Sochi as Harper says he'll skip Olympics

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Thursday December 5, 2013 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In a pointed snub to Russia's macho President Vladimir Putin over the Kremlin's harsh homophobic policies, the U.S. Olympic delegation to Sochi will include a pair of openly gay athletes: Caitlin Cahow, the Harvard-educated, Olympic women's hockey medalist and tennis legend Billie Jean King.

It's the most serious slap to Russian Olympic sensibilities since President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of Moscow's 1980 Summer Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Canada was among the countries backing the boycott.

This winter's less dramatic snub reflects growing disquiet over Mr. Putin's shabby treatment of gays and growing homophobia in Russia.

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Last year, President Barack Obama sent First Lady Michelle Obama to lead the U.S. delegation to London. Less glamorous but even higher-ranked, Vice-President Joe Biden led the star-spangled team to Vancouver in 2010.

The most senior political figure in the U.S. contingent at Sochi will be Janet Napolitano, a former Homeland Security Secretary who now heads California's public university system. She is the lowest-ranking U.S. political official to head an Olympic delegation in decades.

Other Western governments, similarly dismayed by Russian laws banning so-called homosexual "propoganda" or the adoption of Russian orphans by gay couples, are also sending low-level delegation heads to Sochi.

Mr. Putin rejects accusations that he's homophobic and vows gay athletes will be welcome in Sochi, a Black Sea resort. But earlier this week, when a prominent Russian sitcom actor and Orthodox priest, Ivan Okhlobystin, publicly called for gays to be rounded up and incinerated in ovens, there was no peep of condemnation from the Kremlin.

Berlin and Paris have already served notice that the usual high-level delegation leaders won't be going to Sochi.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in an era of ruthless Communist repression of gays in the old Soviet client state of East Germany, has opted against sending President Joachim Gauck to Sochi. French President François Hollande isn't going either.

Other countries are expected to follow suit.

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In Ottawa, the Prime Minister's Office said that Stephen Harper won't go to Sochi but not because of gay rights or Russian homophobia. "He normally does not attend; Vancouver was an exception," said PMO spokesman Jason MacDonald who declined to say whether the Prime Minister plans to send a political message with its delegation. The Governor-General attended the London Games in 2012, but his office said a Sochi trip will be decided by Mr. Harper.

Mr. Obama isn't going. While avoiding direct condemnation of the Kremlin's anti-gay tilt, the President has said he has "no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them."

Shawn Gaylord, of Human Rights First, applauded Mr. Obama's choices. "Promoting equality and dignity are core principles of the spirit of the Olympics and are consistent with the Olympic Charter," he said in a letter before Ms. King and Ms. Cahow were named.

More than gay rights divide the Putin and Obama administrations. The United States is furious over Russia's decision to admit and harbour Edward Snowden, the intelligence contractor who showed the world that the Obama administration has been systematically gathering data worldwide on billions of e-mails and phone calls.

With reports from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa and Ian Bailey in Vancouver

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

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