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Gay rights issue should not be a distraction, King says

Former tennis player Billie Jean King is interviewed while promoting PBS's American Masters series in Beverly Hills, California August 6, 20
Former tennis player Billie Jean King is interviewed while promoting PBS's American Masters series in Beverly Hills, California August 6, 20

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The controversy swirling around Russia's anti-gay policies should not overshadow the athletes at the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, tennis legend and advocate Billie Jean King said on Thursday.

In her first public comments since being named as one of three openly gay members in the U.S. delegation to the Olympics, King said she did not know if there would be any coordinated or more subtle protests at the games.

"It's first and foremost about the athletes," she said on NBC's "Today" show.

King, who in 1981 became one of the first prominent American athletes to publicly acknowledge her homosexuality, said President Barack Obama's delegation lineup announced last month is already making a bold statement about gay rights.

"When we step off the plane, we are part of America. We are what America looks like," she said on "Today".

"Visually, we're going to send a very strong message just by being there," she said later on MSNBC.

Obama has said the inclusion of openly gay athletes in the official U.S. delegation was intended to send a pointed message to Russia, where anti-gay policies have stirred criticism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the nation's laws, which include a ban on the spread of homosexual propaganda among minors. He recently eased curbs on rallies to allow protests in certain sites in Sochi.

The International Olympic Committee has not commented on Russia's law.

Gay rights activists are hoping athletes and others use the Sochi Games starting February 7 as a venue for protest.

King recently suggested in other interviews that the gay rights movement needs a moment like that seen at the 1968 Olympics, when several black Americans raised their fists in protest for civil rights.

Some Olympic athletes - straight and gay - are already speaking out in support of gay rights in the media, King said, but Olympic rules prohibit outright protests.

"Who knows what's going to happen," she told NBC. "It's really about human rights, civil rights."

Other gay athletes in the U.S. delegation include two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow. Three-time Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano said he was gay after he was named to the official group.

Boitano said last week that Obama's decision inspired him to make his sexuality public. But he also cautioned against taking more direct action in Sochi.

"I think that we have to be careful once we go over there," Boitano told NBC. "I think the statement is already being made by us being on the delegation... I think that speaks measures."

King, who won dozens of major titles over her career, has long crusaded for women's equality in tennis and other arenas. In 2009, Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on equal rights.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott and Rosalind Russell)

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