Less than a week before she leads the U.S. Olympics delegation to Sochi, Russia, University of California President Janet Napolitano sat down with me Thursday for a wide-ranging discussion. We touched on security at the Games, NSA leaker Edward Snowden, undocumented students at UC, LGBT rights and her youthful memories of Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”
This is the first time in more than a decade that the U.S. Olympics delegation does not include the U.S. president, vice president or a member of the first family.
When President Barack Obama named the 10-member delegation, the White House noted it included two openly gay athletes, tennis icon Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow. (not to excluded from the gaiety, figure skater Brian Boitano belatedly “came out”).
Napolitano, who last year left her job as secretary of Homeland Security to take the UC position, acknowledged she was “a little bit” surprised that Obama asked her to lead the delegation.
“As the leader of the nation’s largest public research university, where openness and tolerance and intellectual achievement are celebrated and practiced every day,” Napolitano said, “I think that’s a huge set of American values that the university represents (and) that I will be able to represent.
“The delegation represents the diversity of America,” she added, “and I think that sends a powerful message, too.”
Given Russia’s repressive policies against LGBT people, some are calling on Olympic athletes to stage some kind of symbolic protest. Napolitano, while supportive of gay rights, said she didn’t support that kind of action.
“My view is that we’re going there for the athletes and for their performances and I think that’s where the focus ought to be,” she said. “And I’m not sure this is an appropriate place or time for political protests of that sort. Even given that it is so clear that in this area the United States and Russia do not agree.”
Napolitano did say she was thrilled to be spending time with Billie Jean King. She fondly recalled a raucous celebration through the streets of Albuquerque, N.M., when King trounced Bobby Riggs in their 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.
I asked the 56-year-old former governor of Arizona which Olympic event she’d choose to participate in if she had to pick one.
“Oh, Lord,” she said, while throwing her head back to laugh. “Well, this is gonna sound funny, but I got into curling when I was in Vancouver (for the 2010 Winter Games). “It’s kind of like bocce or shuffleboard on ice with brooms. I’m not particularly athletic myself, so I’m not sure I’d be a good curler but that would be kinda fun.”
If Napolitano is concerned about security in Sochi she didn’t let on. She thinks the somewhat remote city will be well-defended from terrorist threats.
In any case, she and her delegation members surely won’t be flying coach. In fact, she said she’s hoping to ride in a U.S. military plane to make the journey to Russia faster and no doubt more secure.
Scott Shafer reported on this story for “KQED Newsroom,” which is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.