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Billie Jean King: America’s champion battler of stereotypes

Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean King.Associated Press/file 2007

It's been four decades since Billie Jean King's big moment on the national stage — her tennis defeat of self-described male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes." It was a kitschy show — King entered the arena in a chair carried by four bare-chested men — and proved to be more of a landmark in popular culture than tennis. But it was a memorable blow against sexism, and King's intelligence and poise gave the event a weight it didn't necessarily deserve: She, at least, seemed aware of the high stakes for women behind all the phony pomp.

Now, King is being tapped for another act of leadership, for which her gravitas, not her killer forehand, will be her calling card. With the Winter Olympics in Sochi fast approaching, President Obama needed to respond appropriately to Russia's laws banning any advocacy for gays and lesbians. Rather than attend himself, Obama appointed a notably gay-friendly delegation to represent him. The openly gay King is the best-known member.

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King, who won 12 grand slam singles titles, would be a natural pick for any Olympic delegation. But everyone from the White House to the Kremlin understands the deeper meaning of her selection. She is an international symbol of clear-eyed defiance of prejudice and intolerance. Her very presence exposes the unfairness of Russia's laws, and suggests that Vladimir Putin's views are every bit as outmoded as those of Bobby Riggs.