The White House Sochi delegation

President Barack Obama

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500


Dear Mr. President:

It is with great respect for you and your office that I write this open letter.

I have covered the Olympic movement for 15 years. The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will be my eighth Games.

I will remind you that in 1980, the last time the Olympic Games were in what is now the Russia, what was then the Soviet Union, the United States team did not go amid intense pressure from the White House. Today, Mr. President, the official U.S. delegation to the Sochi Games that you have announced does not include yourself, the First Lady, the vice president nor any member of your cabinet.

Billie Jean King in New York last month at a 70th birthday party // photo Getty Images

Billie Jean King in New York last month at a 70th birthday party // photo Getty Images

This marks the first Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Summer Games that the president, vice president or a former president will not be a member of the American delegation for the opening ceremony. A White House statement said your schedule simply doesn’t allow your to travel to Sochi.

Throughout the 1990s, it was typical for First Ladies to lead the American delegations. In 1996, of course, President Clinton led the U.S. delegation at the Atlanta Summer Games.

Again with respect, Mr. President, what you have done today is disrespected the Russians — and in particular the Russian president, Vladimir Putin — big time.

Mr. Putin has for years taken a personal interest in the Sochi project. He even came to the International Olympic Committee’s all-members assembly in Guatemala in 2007, at which Sochi won the 2014 Games, to lead its campaign. When Mr. Putin became president again for the third time on May 7, 2012, his very first meeting that day was with the-then IOC president, Jacques Rogge.

To be obvious: Sochi matters, a lot, to Mr. Putin.

And Mr. Putin is a very big deal within the Olympic movement. The Russians are spending at least $51 billion to transform Sochi from a Black Sea summer resort to a Winter Games destination. That’s at least $10 billion more than the Chinese spent in 2008 for Beijing, and Beijing was a Summer Olympics. For $51 billion, you get a lot of attention.

Mr. President, you have also sparked potential problems for the athletes on the U.S. team and, looking ahead, for the possibility of an American bid for the 2024 Summer Games, because in this matter of protocol you have also made clear your disregard for the International Olympic Committee.

All of this in the name of politics.

If we’re being straight with each other, this centers in some measure around the new Russian anti-gay law. That’s why you’re sending an icon like Billie Jean King as part of the official U.S. delegation. It’s why a White House spokesman said the delegation, headed by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now president of the University of California system, “represents the diversity that is the United States.”

Also, too, it assuredly has to do with leverage. You want it. There are complex geopolitics at issue, like your relationship with Mr. Putin, the interplay with the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and other matters that we, who do not have access to the daily White House security briefings, have no idea about.

Mr. President, you are a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. You know full well the Olympics are a time when nations are supposed to give politics a rest, if only briefly.

You know, too, that sport has the power to bring people together. Just a few days ago, you were in South Africa, at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, who understood that ideal perhaps better than anyone in our time.

You flew to South Africa aboard Air Force one with former President President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Obama, sir, if you were looking to make a statement about “the diversity that is the United States,” why not send Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton to Russia as your delegation leaders? Both are Olympic delegation veterans — Mr. Bush in 2008, Mrs. Clinton as First Lady in 1994 and 1996 — and that would have sent a very different signal of respect, indeed.

These things matter.

Instead, what you have also signaled — and this is unpleasant to acknowledge — is that, frankly, you don’t respect the American athletes themselves. The statement you’re making to them, loud and clear, is that they’re not important enough for you to step above politics.

Thinking this through to its logical conclusion, sir:

Compare your action Tuesday with President Bush, who cheerfully demonstrated his unity with American athletes in 2002 by literally sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the stands at the opening ceremony in Salt Lake. You have put politics ahead of the athletes in a way that could potentially compromise the U.S. team’s success in 2014 if the Russians take the next steps. What might those steps be? This is not difficult. The Winter Olympics involve a multitude of judged sports. (Think back to the ice-skating controversy in 2002.) Moreover, any Winter Olympics involves transport issues. (It’s a long way up a winding road from the ice cluster in Adler to the snow cluster in Krasnaya Polyana.)

Things have a funny way of happening on snow and ice, Mr. President. It can get slippery.

Is your busy schedule — or, indeed, the First Lady’s — payback for Chicago’s first-round exit in 2009 for the IOC voting for the 2016 Summer Games? Rio de Janeiro won that day. It was historic; you were the first sitting U.S. president to ever appear before the IOC, at the general session in Copenhagen. Yet most of what the IOC members remember about you being there has nothing to do with your fine speech, or even the First Lady’s, for she was there, too. It was the Secret Service sweep and the delay it caused them in getting to their seats.

If that seems petty to some — what about this now?

If the fact that the U.S. Olympic Committee is weighing a bid for the 2024 Games is not foremost on your agenda, be sure that it is high on the IOC’s list. The new IOC president, Thomas Bach, and his key advisers, are keenly seeking a U.S. bid. But the USOC is willing to jump in only if it has a high likelihood of winning, because Olympic bids in recent years have run to $50 million and more.

The IOC will pick the 2024 site in the summer of 2017. By then, you will be out of office.

Even so, within the IOC memories run long. And in 2015, three or four dozen IOC members, maybe more, are due in Washington, D.C., for a key assembly, a meeting of the 204-member Assn. of National Olympic Committees.

There they will be reminded vividly that you are there. And that in 2014 you threw this in their face.

All in the name of gay rights? Some of us may see gay marriage as a civil rights measure, Mr. President. But if you were to look at this from afar, it’s still the case that only 16 states and Washington, D.C., permit gay marriage. That’s not exactly a majority.

This controversial Russian law passed the Duma, their lower house, by a vote of 436-0. We can disagree with the measure, but there can be no question about the numbers.

Which begs the question: who are we Americans to be using the Olympics to lecture the Russians about how to run their country? To be sending Billie Jean King over as a symbol of — what? The purported progressiveness of our society or our moral superiority? Isn’t that presumptuous or, worse, arrogant?

After Sochi, are you planning to send Billie Jean King next to states such as Ohio (which you won in 2012), Virginia (ditto) and Colorado (same) to lobby for gay marriage? It’s banned there now in all three. And Colorado is home to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

How would we like it if the Russians — or, for that matter, anyone — came over here and told us what to do? Would we welcome their advice on matters such as the death penalty, which virtually every nation in western Europe now considers morally abhorrent? (Should that be an automatic disqualifier for a U.S. 2024 Summer bid? Or just disqualify, say, Texas?) What about our laws regarding assault rifles? Or legalized marijuana? And on and on.

Mr. President, the concept of American exceptionalism is not altogether popular around the world. But it’s often the case that we Americans are indeed held to a different standard. Here, you should have gone in a different direction in deciding who was, and was not, going to Sochi in the official White House delegation.

Too, you should have made this decision sooner. It was announced Sunday that France’s president, François Hollande, would not be going to Sochi.

Surely, sir, you were not taking your lead from the French?



Alan Abrahamson

3 Wire Sports

Los Angeles, California


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19 thoughts on “The White House Sochi delegation

  1. ‘Too, you should have made this decision sooner. It was announced Sunday that France’s president, François Hollande, would not be going to Sochi.

    Surely, sir, you were not taking your lead from the French?’

    Nothing like a little bit of casual racism to undermine your entire argument…

  2. Hi Alan. Really interesting and well-written. I find it hard to agree with much of it. To begin with, it feels a little weird to argue for *more* politicians at an Olympic Games on the grounds that “nations are supposed to give politics a rest”. Were that truly the case, wouldn’t we be in the happy situation of having a Games utterly bereft of politicians? Isn’t, therefore, the US stance a sizeable step toward the outcome you’re hoping for? (Whether or not the US means it to be.)

    Now there’s some inherent naivety in there – not always a bad thing – so let’s leave that to one side.

    It also sounds somewhat as though you’d rather the US primed the IOC for its 2024 bid than took a stand on the issue of gay rights. Which to my mind would be a disappointing, fairly saddening set of priorities but I can understand how people could get there. I’m not sure many US athletes will particularly care about whether the president is sitting next to them or not at the opening ceremony – in fact, if they think he’s not there because their nation is standing up for human rights, I reckon many athletes will probably be fairly chuffed about that. It’s difficult to envisage most of the athletes I’ve ever spoken to even stopping to think about it for long. Again, if we don’t want politics at the Games, then not having current or former presidents hanging around the athletes on live global TV for the sake of being seen to hang around athletes seems like step one.

    I can’t say I’m hugely convinced by the part where you mention the situation in various US states. Worrying about whether Russia will like it or not (an entire country liking something or otherwise of course being a mammoth generalisation – I imagine it’ll give a modicum of hope to a lot of LGBT Russians, for starters) seems reasonably irrelevant. No doubt the US wouldn’t like it at all if a country made a sustained protest against the death penalty. But I’m also sure there’s some sort of amendment somewhere, usually invoked with a guttural roar around this point in most US-based comments, that enshrines the right for folk to say what they think. The fact that the US isn’t yet agreed on gay rights is worth noting, agreed, but if the US were to wait for the entire nation to come to accord over an issue before taking action, then the nation might as well cease to exist. Imagine if that were the approach to foreign affairs. Moreover, we’re talking not-yet-agreed-on-gay-rights in the US versus active oppression in many parts of Russia that US states couldn’t come near to replicating even if they tried (harder than they are doing).

    As regards the comment about Francois Hollande, I know it’s an insular US stereotype and your tongue was heading cheekward, but let’s at least be grateful for a president that probably *doesn’t* worry about that kind of thing, and with any luck couldn’t care less about grandstanding to Americans about the French as though we weren’t all actually living in the 21st Century.

    Ultimately, I think my issue is that in asking Obama to take politics out of his stand, you’re really asking him to engage in more politics: the politics of the Games, of making friends at the IOC, of shaking hands and smiling alongside athletes, of saying and doing The Right Thing in order for the US to be welcomed back to the Olympic high table for many years to come (and maybe pick up a few more medals in judged sports?). It’s all politics, it’s just different politics.

    I suppose it’s up to the individual to decide which of the above politics you’d rather have. I prefer the bit about human rights to the bit where IOC members got annoyed by security delays, and I long for a sporting environment where the former matters more than the latter. I’m not kidding myself that we’re remotely near reaching that point, nor am I so naive as to believe that sport will ever be free of politics at every last corner. But every small step is a good’un, perhaps even at the cost of short-term difficulties like a figure skating judge giving Meryl Davis and Charlie White some grief, or not hosting an Olympics for a little while.

    Certainly a provocative and interesting letter to read, though. Thanks for publishing it and hopefully see you in Sochi.


  3. I’ve seen some pretty ludicrous comparisons of Obama and W. Bush but this has to be the most outrageous yet. Give Obama a home Winter Games, shortly after a national calamity, and then it might be a useful comparison.

    In any event, I guarantee the US athletes don’t consider Obama’s decision disrespectful. Everyone fully knows the reason for the decision and the principle behind it; and a vast majority of the delegation supports that principle. They certainly wouldn’t be eager to ignore that principle just because they are afraid of biased judging (what else is new) or transport sabotage.

    What’s truly disrespectful here is the Russian law that has sparked this furor. In case you missed it, it is not like the laws outlawing gay marriage in Virginia and Colorado. It basically opens the door to government-sanctioned discrimination and oppression. It consigns gay people to permanent second-class-citizen status. And, yeah, that’s a matter of civil rights and human rights. No matter how unanimous the Russian lawmakers are on the issue.

    Even the crustiest, oldest IOC members get that.

  4. This was the biggest waste of time 1) to read this “open letter” 2) for you to write this “open letter” – replace “anti-gay laws” with anti-Jew, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-Black laws and I’m sure your tone would be much different. Discrimination is not to be tolerated, sir. So, take off your blinders and open your eyes to what’s happening. I APPLAUD PRES. OBAMA ON HIS SELECTION.

  5. “Listen up Barry, with all respect, I don’t like you but you need my advice. You really need to make nice with Vladimir Putin. Bush looked into his soul, you know. He’s a great guy. Vladimir has crossed you and the US at every turn but to me and my pals at the IOC he’s a very big deal indeed. Who are we to tell him not to beat up gay people or take away their children? For God’s sake, Mr President, don’t lose sight of what’s important! There’s a hell of a lot of money at stake here.”

    oh, and bashing the French is so 2003…

  6. since when have the Olympics NOT been about politics… and if the Olympic Committee is that sensitive, let them have the Olympics on other countries …. we’ll send athletes… why do we have to spend big $$ to have it here … except I bet that the Olympic Committee individuals gets more ‘prestige’ when it is here….

  7. Disrespect to Russian President Vladimir Putin? To the IOC? Please, Mr. Abrahamson. I’d prefer a nose-thumbing of this sort any day if it appropriately singles out backwards laws and social mores of a so-called “democracy.” Besides, Putin can counter, if he chooses, by having Edward Snowden represent Russia as part of that country’s Olympic delegation to Sochi. No sentient person — not one — separates from pure nationalist politics the Olympic Games, the IOC, the TV coverage, or the annual chest-thumping that accompanies the quadrennial toting and gloating about medals. I’m sorry that’s that case, but that is, indeed, the case.

  8. Sorry, but human rights are not just “politics.” Calling a principled stand for human dignity “politics” diminishes it. We are not talking about an argument over fair trade, but about the fundamental respect for all people that is embodied in our tradition and unfortunately ignored in Russia. If this were about race or religion, you would not be saying it’s just “politics.” There are some things in this world more important than sports.

  9. Ever stand up to a bully? Putin is far worse than a bully, but here’s a playground point to it (and isn’t sport, even Olympic sport, a playground?). If the bully is not confronted, their bullying remains, and they feel they have conquered the “cowards” that have not confronted them. I cannot imagine a more diplomatic way to confront the consummate bully, Putin. There is no violence perpetrated, no teams pulled from competition, but just an eyeball to eyeball, this is wrong and we do NOT accept it. THANK YOU, President Obama, for standing up to the coward and bully, Putin.

  10. So playing “politics” in standing up to bigotry is less important than playing “politics” to suck up to the bigot and those who cling to him. Interesting take from inside a bubble.

  11. ‘Mr. President, you are a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. You know full well the Olympics are a time when nations are supposed to give politics a rest, if only briefly.’

    Please, sir. Anyone who has heard of the 1936 Olympics should know full well that politics never rest with international athletics.

    The modern Olympics have always been political and pretending they are not is at best silly and at worst an acceptance of the worst forms of thuggery. The President has not imposed an athletic boycott, he is merely using his office in its symbolic functions. Namely, to condemn an oligarchic regime with a long history of human rights violations.

  12. The IOC isn’t a respectable organization that deserves any deference. It’s just a bureaucratic fiction that lets Nike and other big corporations/un-humanitarian governments flex their muscles. They’re not writing the rules for the athletes- they’re writing them for their pocketbooks.
    In this particular case they are whining about not being able to please the host country who has an unethical take on homosexuality. And the President is supposed to take that worry seriously? Yea right. With all due respect, check your morals and values before you say IOC anything. And don’t try to say it’s not American- America is supposed to be about FREEDOM, Mr… giving-into-the-wrong-point-of view-because we-should-respect-“authority” guy.

  13. Barack Obama is an immature embarrassment. We have seen him throw temper tantrums time and again when he does not get his way and just acts un-presidential.

    The far left has latched onto the Olympics to push an agenda, with no concern of facts or truth. The same type of tactics the left uses on a range of issues from Climate to Trayvon Martin.

    Its not illegal to be gay there or have gay sex. They simply have a slap on the wrist fine for propagandizing alternative sex to children. Its their society. The polls show over 80% of the people there support this. And it passed 436 votes to 0.

    So what the left is actually fighting for is the right to propagandize alternative sex to children when it comes down to it.

    There was never going to be a boycott over this. No sponsor was going to pull out for this. No media company was going to drop their coverage because of this.

    Its a manufactured story and now those that manufactured the story feel the need to do things like the nonsense of this delegation to retain their street cred with the Progressive left.

    In the end this is just an insult to Conservatives and Christians in this country who do not want to be represented on a world stage by a group of gays.

    Notice how the left is ignoring that India made homosexuality illegal a couple weeks ago. They can’t mention stuff like that too much because it would expose how hypocritical their venom of Russia is. In fact India joins a group of 77 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Russia isn’t one of them.

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