WASHINGTON - President Bush gave U.S. Olympians a rousing White House send-off to next month's games in Beijing, urging them yesterday to "compete swifter, higher and stronger" but also be mindful they will be "ambassadors of liberty" to the people of China and elsewhere.
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."
"We send you off with congratulations on the success you have already achieved, and on the accomplishments we know will be yours in Beijing. We're looking forward to rooting for you in Beijing."
The President and his wife, Laura, also held a White House dinner in the evening to honor current and previous U.S. Olympians.
"You're not going to be alone in Beijing," Bush said as he toasted the athletes. "Because you're going to be accompanied by the hopes and pride of millions of Americans."
Bush said the Olympics are "an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the human spirit."
He cited the 1972 Olympics when people gathered in Munich to honor the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed by Palestinian gunmen and the 2002 games in Salt Lake City when an American flag recovered from the World Trade Center "displayed to the world the resolve and resilience of our country."
He then wished the athletes luck, endurance and victory.