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HELENE ELLIOTT

With Billie Jean King's help, U.S. takes right stand at Sochi Games

The presence of the tennis star and hockey's Caitlin Cahow at the Winter Olympics sends the message that we're the better for including gays and lesbians in key roles.

Helene Elliott

7:49 PM PST, December 18, 2013

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In hockey terms, appointing openly gay athletes Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow to the presidential delegation that will represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics is a face wash — that quaint, queasy custom of rubbing stinky gloves in another player's face as an irritating tactic.

Sending tennis immortal King and two-time Olympic hockey medalist Cahow to play significant roles alongside straight colleagues is a message of unmistakable defiance to Russia, which has adopted anti-gay legislation that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors," effectively prohibits gay-rights rallies, and jeopardizes those who express support of gays.

Selecting King and Cahow says we're not telling you how to run your country but we're showing you how we run ours, and we include gays and lesbians in key roles on and off the field of play — and we are better for it.

King will represent the U.S. at the opening ceremony in Sochi on Feb. 7. So will Olympic figure skating gold medalist Brian Boitano; delegation leader Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California; Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation; and Robert Nabors, deputy chief of staff for policy in the Obama White House.

"Honored to represent USA in Sochi and I hope these Olympics will be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people," King said on her Twitter account.

Cahow, who won a bronze medal with the U.S. women's hockey team at Turin in 2006, silver at Vancouver in 2010 and medals at four world championships, is part of the delegation that will attend the closing ceremony on Feb. 23. So are winter sports icons Bonnie Blair — who won six Olympic speedskating medals — and Dr. Eric Heiden, a five-time Olympic speedskating champion.

Cahow, now a law student at Boston College, will take a rightful place alongside Blair, Heiden, McFaul and William J. Burns, deputy secretary of State.

"The group that's being sent over there is full of wonderful athletes, elite athletes who have represented the U.S. well on the national stage who are wonderful people," said Patrick Burke, co-founder of the You Can Play project, which promotes acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes.

"I don't see how anyone can argue against any of these selections."

Oh, but people have and they will. Mostly on the grounds that sending openly gay athletes is politicizing the Olympics or being rude to the hosts, as if Russia's laws aren't rude and punitive enough.

Unfortunately, the notion of non-politicized Olympics vanished long ago, before the disappearance of the idealistic notion of limiting the Games to amateur athletes. Every nation that plays host to the Olympics sees the opportunity as a forum to promote its political and social values, most notably since the 1936 Berlin Games and Jesse Owens' triumphs foiled Adolf Hitler's attempts to prove Aryan supremacy.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden aren't scheduled to go to Sochi. Top political officials in France and Germany also have said they won't attend. Let them stay home. Let King launch the Games and Cahow wrap them up after many memorable stories have played out on ice and snow.

"Everything we do at You Can Play is about amplifying and sharing LGBT voices and the stories of LGBT athletes and making sure people know they do exist and they do have compelling stories," Burke said Wednesday. "Russia wants to deny the idea that LGBT people exist, let alone elite athletes who are LGBT exist.

"I think the U.S. delegation is going to be another example that they are wrong, that their policies, their rules, their laws are archaic and ridiculous and hopefullly this is just another way to show that to them."

Burke, son of Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke, helped found You Can Play in honor of his brother Brendan, who was finding his path as a gay man in the macho world of hockey when he was killed in a car accident. Patrick Burke said he's proud that Cahow will be part of the Sochi delegation, though he has chosen to protest Russian policies by staying away.

"She's brilliant, she's an elite athlete, a numerous-time medalist. This is the perfect person to represent everything that's good about American athletics," Burke said. "Everything we want. Everyone who has a daughter or a son would dream of having this, an elite academic mind who is also a U.S. Olympian.

"I should also mention she's a wonderful person. The fact that she happens to be a lesbian is a side note to all of that."

It's more than that. It's a wonderfully timed, stinky-glove face wash.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen