Bush gives U.S. Olympians rousing send-off to Beijing

Updated: July 21, 2008, 3:56 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- President Bush gave U.S. Olympians a rousing White House send-off to next month's games in Beijing, urging them Monday to "compete swifter, higher and stronger" but also be mindful they will be "ambassadors of liberty" to the people of China and elsewhere.

[+] EnlargePresident Bush
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident Bush holds a jersey Monday given to him by U.S. softball Olympian Jennie Finch during a White House ceremony.

Bush is attending the opening ceremonies and the first few days of the Aug. 8-24 games. Standing in the Rose Garden with about two dozen athletes who will compete in the Beijing Olympics and the corresponding Paralympics there in September, Bush said he is "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 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 politicized 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, 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."

Bush beamed with pride at Team USA.

"We send you off with congratulations on the success you have already achieved and on the accomplishments we know will be yours in Beijing," he said. "We're looking forward to rooting for you in Beijing."

The president and his wife, Laura, were also holding a White House dinner in the evening to honor current and previous U.S. Olympians.

Among those attending alongside officials from the Bush administration and the U.S. Olympic Committee are athletes such as track and field gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and gymnastics gold medalist Shannon Miller.

The menu was not a low-cal affair, with pea soup with duck pastrami, cheese puffs, crispy black sea bass, butter beans, salad and a dessert called the "Olympic Torch," a dark chocolate tart with raspberries and a blown-sugar Olympic flame.

The bluegrass band Seldom Scene was the chosen entertainment.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press