WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush on Monday told US athletes bound for the Beijing Olympics that they will be "ambassadors of liberty" representing US commitments to "human rights and human dignity."
"In Beijing, you will convey our nation's most cherished values. As ambassadors of liberty, you will represent America's love for freedom and our regard for human rights and human dignity," he told them at the White House.
"You'll represent that to other athletes, and to the people of China," said the US president, who had repeatedly declared that he viewed the games as an athletic competition, not a venue for a political message to Beijing.
Bush will attend the August 8 opening ceremonies of the games, having rejected human rights activists' appeals for him to boycott the gala in protest over China's overall rights record, including a crackdown in Tibet in March.
"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," the US president told more than 20 US Olympics and Paralympic competitors.
Outside the White House, US track and field Olympian LaShawn Merritt said he understood Bush's message "but the main focus here is athletics, going over to do the job."
Asked whether he was concerned about the rights situation in China, Merritt replied: "Not really, you know, the political side of it, we are going over there to do what wed love to do.
"At the end of the day, I'm just going over to compete," he told AFP.
Bush has walked a diplomatic tightrope over the Olympics, repeatedly insisting the games are not a political venue while recently stepping up his public criticism of Beijing's rights record.
Bush said last week that he told Chinese President Hu Jintao when they met last week in Japan: "So long as there are those who want to fight for their liberty, the United States stands with them."
But during their joint public appearance in the resort town of Toyako, Bush was considerably meeker, telling Hu that he did not "need the Olympics to talk candidly" about his concerns.
Hu, in turn, said through an interpreter that he "highly appreciated that President Bush has on various occasions expressed his opposition to politicizing the Olympic Games."
A day earlier, the US president had told reporters in Toyako that skipping the opening ceremonies would have been "an affront to the Chinese people," making it harder to press their leaders for reforms.
Back home, however, Bush drew Beijing's anger last week by declaring that he admired "the courage of the Dalai Lama and the Buddhists in Tibet."
China quickly hit back, with foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao telling reporters: "We hope relevant countries will stop using relevant issues to interfere in China's internal affairs."
Asked whether Bush meant that US athletes would have a role beyond sports, spokeswoman Dana Perino replied: "No."
"I think that the president was saying that they represent America, and those are values that we represent, and he was very proud to have them today," she said.
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