Billie Jean King Sochi
Tennis great Billie Jean King has been named by US president Barack Obama to represent the US at Sochi Winter OlympicsReuters

President Barack Obama said he will not attend the Sochi Olympics in Russia and named two openly gay athletes to represent the US at opening and closing ceremonies, in an open snub to Russian laws targeting homosexuals.

Former Tennis champion Billie Jean King and women's ice hockey silver medallist Caitlin Cahow, will be among the US delegation at the Winter Games, the White House announced.

King, a 39-time Grand Slam title winner and one of the most prominent advocates of equality for women in sports and society tweeted:

Cahow said she was "humbled and proud to represent" her country.

Russia recently approved a law outlawing the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors", which was harshly criticised by human rights activists in Russia and abroad.

The issue was not directly addressed by the White House, which did not comment on the sexual orientation its delegates.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the delegation represented "the diversity that is the United States."

"All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism and sports," she said.

The group will be led by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as Obama said his schedule would not permit him to attend.

It will be the first time in more than a decade that the US will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Olympic Games.

"It's a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for gay advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

"Hopefully it sends a message to the Russian people and the rest of the world that the United States values the civil and human rights of LGBT people."