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Editorial: An Olympic Stand: Obama Sends Message to Putin

Vladimir Putin’s Olympics, like many of his policies, seem designed to vex and annoy the West. For the Olympics at least, President Barack Obama has come up with a brilliant response to his Russian counterpart. Her name is Billie Jean King.

Some background: The anti-gay law Russia adopted after winning the right to host the Winter Olympics, which begin in February, clearly violates protections against discrimination enshrined in the games’ charter. The spineless response of the International Olympic Committee was to claim that a law that prohibits “propaganda” in support of gay relationships is not, in fact, discriminatory. Olympic boycotts, meanwhile, have been singularly ineffective at just about everything except hurting the athletes.

What to do? Last week the White House announced that neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden nor any member of the presidential Cabinet will attend the games in Sochi. In their place will be King and Caitlin Cahow, both accomplished athletes who also happen to be gay.

King, 70, who won 39 Grand Slam titles during her tennis career and coached the U.S. women’s tennis teams to Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000, was the first major female athlete to come out in 1981. Cahow, 28, is a two-time Olympic medalist in women’s ice hockey.

Their presence on the delegation, which also includes former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and presidential adviser Rob Nabors, recognizes that the Olympics are about sports — but about politics, too. If they weren’t, countries wouldn’t compete for the right to pay billions of dollars to host the games.

At the same time, it’s important to be clear about who this diplomatic gamesmanship ­— the French and German leaders have also said they will not attend the Winter Olympics — will benefit. The absence of a few Western leaders taking selfies in the grandstands at Sochi isn’t likely to bother Putin much. Nor will a majority of Russians recognize King or Cahow.

These gestures are first of all important for the countries making them, which like to think they are being consistent about standing up for universal values (even if their own societies only rather recently saw the light on gay rights). They are also important in letting gay men and lesbians inside Russia know they have international support.

No one, however, should delude themselves that any of this will prompt Putin to repeal any laws. The law against gay propaganda was adopted as part of his concerted effort to create a new Russian identity, defined against European and U.S. values. “Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” he said a few months ago. “They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

Putin was obviously playing to his social-conservative base, as do countless politicians in the West. That barely qualifies as noteworthy. But these are the Olympics. Like athletics, human rights are universal. Billie Jean King can make that point without saying a word.

Bloomberg News