President Barack Obama says the inclusion of three openly gay athletes in the official U.S. delegation to the Sochi Olympics in Russia demonstrates America’s ideal of not judging people over their sexual orientation.
The composition of the U.S. delegation is being seen as a challenge to Russia, which has adopted a controversial law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.
The measure has been condemned by critics as discriminatory against homosexuals.
"When it comes to the Olympics and athletic performance, we don't make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation," Obama said at a White House news conference December 20.
"We judge people on how they perform both on the court and off the court, on the field and off the field and that's a value that, I think, is at the heart of not just America but American sports."
The White House says neither the president, First Lady Michelle Obama, nor Vice President Joe Biden will travel to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Olympics get under way in February.
At the news conference, Obama denied that his decision not to travel to Sochi was a political statement aimed against Russian policies. Obama said he expected to be dealing with a busy U.S. domestic agenda during the games.
The presidents of France, Germany, and Lithuania have also announced recently that they do not plan to attend the Sochi Olympics.
Earlier this year, Obama rejected suggestions that the United States should boycott the Sochi games in protest of the Russian law.
Obama said a stronger statement than a boycott could be made by "gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze."
The U.S. delegation includes the openly gay athletes Bille Jean King, the woman tennis star; Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano; and Olympic two-time women’s ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow.
Boitano, who won gold in the 1988 Olympics, announced he was gay only this week, after he was named by Obama to the U.S. delegation.
Boitano and King are due to take part in the opening ceremony in Sochi. Cahow is slated to attend the closing ceremony.
The U.S. delegation is being led by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. It also includes the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors.
In contrast, Michelle Obama headed the U.S. delegation to the 2012 London Olympics, and Vice President Biden led the American delegation at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
With reporting from Reuters and AP