Napolitano to lead delegation at Sochi Winter Olympics

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Embodying the values of higher education and “freedom of expression,” UC President Janet Napolitano took flight Wednesday to Sochi, Russia, where she will lead the U.S. presidential delegation at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics on Friday.

This will be the first ceremony since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney in which the president, vice president or first lady has not represented the United States. Napolitano, who co-led the closing ceremony delegation at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, is the first UC official to represent the country in such an event.

“(Napolitano) feels that having a university president leading the delegation is an acknowledgement of the central role that higher education plays in cultivating excellence among young people,” said Steve Montiel, a UC spokesperson.

Chosen by President Barack Obama, the 10-member delegation includes two openly gay athletes — ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano — sending a clear message to Russia regarding its recent anti-gay laws. Other members include Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Robert Nabors, the president’s deputy chief of staff.

On the subject of U.S.-Russian relations, David Wetzel, a UC Berkeley history lecturer, describes the political situation as “fragile at best.”

Points of contention between the two nations include Russia’s foreign policy regarding Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin’s treatment of gays and other minorities, and political opposition, he said.

But Napolitano’s presence may help cultivate better relations between the two nations, according to Wetzel.

“Napolitano is a figure of international significance,” Wetzel said, pointing to the UC president’s former role as Secretary of Homeland Security. “I think Napolitano’s presence in Russia will have a positive effect.”

At Sochi, Napolitano will attend several competitions, including the U.S. women’s ice hockey game against Finland, ice dancing, figure skating and the men’s speed skating and snowboarding events.

Along with other members of the delegation, she will meet members of Team USA, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. She will return to the United States on Sunday.

“(Napolitano) is there to support the athletes and to represent the U.S. and the University of California,” Montiel said.

UC alumni competing in the games include Cory Butner, a UC Riverside alumnus who will be participating in the bobsled event, and Brita Sigourney, a former UC Davis student and a member of the U.S. freeskiing team. Jill Radzinski, a UC Davis athletic trainer, will be training the U.S. women’s ice hockey team.

Among the athletes who competed in the 2012 London Olympic games, 38 hailed from UC Berkeley — more than from any other public university in the nation.

Jessie Lau covers campus life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessielau93.