ABC News’ Matt Jaffe Reports: President Bush welcomed 17 members of the U.S. Summer Olympic team to the White House Monday morning ahead of next month’s Games in China, as well as five members of the U.S. Paralympic team that will compete there come September.
"I’m fired up to go. I can’t wait to salute our athletes and I can’t wait to share in the joy of your triumphs," Bush told the Olympians. "And so today we send you off with congratulations on the success you have already achieved and on the accomplishments we know will be yours in Beijing. May you and your teammates compete swifter, higher, and stronger in the Games and may God bless you as you represent our wonderful nation."
Bush and the First Lady will attend the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing on August 8, a decision criticized by various politicians and human rights groups that want the President to take a stand against China’s treatment of protesters in Tibet. Bush has said he views the Olympics as a sporting event, not a political one, and he will go to support the nation’s Olympics team.
"In Beijing you will convey our nation’s most cherished values," Bush said to the competitors. "As ambassadors of liberty, you will represent America’s love for freedom and our regard for human rights and human dignity. You’ll represent to other athletes and to the people of China."
"Team USA shows the great power of sports to bring people together," he said. "There’s no sporting event that unites people like the Olympics and all Americans will rally behind you when you compete in Beijing. And we will be fascinated by the different stories behind each athlete."
The President then told the stories of three particular Olympians, one of whom was present today in the Rose Garden: Scott Winkler, an Army specialist who lost the use of his legs in an accident in Iraq, is now a paralympian in track & field.
"Scott, we honor your service to our country, we thank you for coming today, and we’ll be pulling for you," said Bush.
Following his remarks, softball pitcher Jennie Finch presented the President with a red USA softball jersey with Bush 08 on the back.
Later about a half-dozen Olympians, including the beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor & Kerri Walsh that won the gold-medal at the 2004 Athens Summer Games, spoke to reporters staked out in the White House driveway.
"It’s such an honor to be here, to shake his hand, and just to know everything he’s doing to keep us safe here at home and abroad," said Walsh. "He’s a very special man. He has, you know, the weight of the world on top of him and he’s so charismatic and he has that twinkle in his eye."
May-Treanor spoke about Bush’s controversial decision to attend the Opening Ceremonies.
"It’s a sporting event, not a political, you know, event, but it will bring things to the forefront that hopefully us as athletes can, you know, continue with those for a second and get everybody together, and then after try to find solutions, but he’s very excited to come there as a fan and a supporter."
A crowd of about 150 comprised of U.S. Olympic Committee staff, friends and families of the Olympians, and active duty military personnel was present at today’s sun-splashed Rose Garden ceremony. Tonight the President and First Lady will host a dinner in the East Room which will feature five Olympic gold-medalists: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Bob Beamon, Bart Conner, Shannon Miller, and Norman Bellingham.