George Bush gave US Olympians a rousing White House send-off to next month’s games in Beijing, urging them to “compete swifter, higher and stronger” but also remember they would be “ambassadors of liberty” to the people of China and elsewhere.
The US president, who is attending the opening ceremonies and the first few days of the August 8-24 games, told about two dozen athletes who will compete in the Beijing Olympics and the corresponding Paralympics there in September, that he was “fired up” to watch some of the competition.
“I can’t wait to salute our athletes, and I can’t wait to share in the joy of your triumphs,” he said.
Human rights groups had urged Mr Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies to oppose China’s crackdown on protesters in Tibet. The Bush administration argues that the Olympics are a sporting event not to be politicised, and that the president will raise human and religious rights with Chinese officials in the appropriate context.
But while talking to the athletes about their responsibilities in Beijing, Mr Bush had a subtle message for China itself.
“You will convey our nation’s most cherished values,” the president said. “As ambassadors of liberty, you will represent America’s love for freedom and our regard for human rights and human dignity ... to other athletes and to the people of China.”
Mr Bush said the Olympics were “an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the human spirit”.
He cited the 1972 Olympics when people gathered in Munich to honour the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian gunmen and the 2002 games in Salt Lake City when an American flag recovered from the World Trade Centre “displayed to the world the resolve and resilience of our country”.
The president and his wife Laura also held a White House dinner in the evening to honour current and previous US Olympians.