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Bush turns attention from politics to Olympics

President Bush blended political messages for China and Russia with high fives and hugs for American athletes Friday as the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics abroad.
Image: George Bush, Vladimir Putin
U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin try to catch a view of the Opening Ceremony. More than 60 world leaders attended Friday's event in Beijing.Eric Gaillard / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush blended political messages for China and Russia with high fives and hugs for American athletes Friday as the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics abroad.

Before settling in for the opening hoopla of fireworks and acrobats, Bush took another swipe at China's human rights record and spoke with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about fighting in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia.

Russia sent tanks in after Georgian troops launched a military offensive Friday to retake control of South Ossetia. Bush and Putin discussed the situation at a luncheon for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao, said Gordon Johndroe, a Bush spokesman, without giving details.

The U.S. is urging "restraint on all sides" and calling for direct talks to curtail the violence, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Earlier in the day, Bush used the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy to prod China to lessen repression and "let people say what they think," repeating the sort of message that was rebuffed by the Chinese government even before he arrived in Beijing.

The president later turned his attention back to his primary reason for coming — the games.

"It's gotta be really exciting, thinking about marching in that stadium and representing our country," Bush told cheering U.S. athletes gathered in the Olympic fencing center before the Opening Ceremony.

"We appreciate all the hard work you've put in to get to this spot," said Bush, accompanied by wife Laura and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. team's honorary captain.

"We want you to win as many golds as you possibly can. Go forth, give it all you got!"

The president then posed for photos with the athletes, dressed in blue blazers, white slacks and white caps.

As the nearly 600-strong U.S. team — second in size only to China's — paraded into National Stadium, Bush and the first lady stood and waved tiny U.S. flags.

The U.S. athletes followed Syria onto the track, where they walked over pads doused in paint, leaving multicolored streaks of footprints. They enthusiastically waved at the Bushes, and took photos and video to capture the moment.

Nearby, Putin, who doffed his suit jacket on a warm, muggy night, had lauded his nation's athletes shortly before.

Communist China, which tolerates only government-approved religions, rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing's commitments when it won hosting rights for the games. Such actions injected some tension into Bush's visit.

"We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world's biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

"We've had these back-and-forths with China for years," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Beijing responded Thursday to criticism in a Bush speech by defending its human rights record and saying he shouldn't be meddling in China's internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China's contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

"Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust," Bush said. "I've worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust."

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China's importance to the United States.

"It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations," Bush said. "It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come."

The embassy ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush's father and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over, though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watches women's basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men's and women's Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China's vice president and premier. But then it's back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

Dwyane Wade, a member of the superstar-laden men's basketball team, said he was happy Bush would be in the stands.

"So we have to go out there and play like we're representing the US of A," Wade said. "If we do that ... we'll win it."