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Bush throws himself into Olympic experience

Most days, being the U.S. president means trying to extinguish one blooming crisis after another. Then there are days like Saturday and visiting Olympic events across Beijing.
Image: U.S. President Bush poses with U.S. beach volleyball players
President Bush poses with U.S. women's beach volleyball players Misty May-Treanor, left, and Kerri Walsh while visiting the Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Grounds, Beijing, on Saturday.Larry Downing / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most days, being the U.S. president means trying to extinguish one blooming crisis after another. Then there are days like Saturday.

Mountain biking on the Olympic course. Getting in a couple of hits with the women's beach volleyball team. Chuckling after being the target of a softball player's practical joke. Picking events and knowing he could get in, with a police escort ensuring traffic wasn't a problem.

President Bush, a longtime sports fan, was immersing himself into the Olympic spirit with abandon, acting like a kid — even when his body was reminding him that he's 62.

Official business lingers
There were also reminders that the world's troubles follow wherever Bush goes. He was given regular updates after Russia sent columns of tanks and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases Friday after Georgia launched a major military offensive earlier in the day to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The fast-changing hostilities threaten to ignite a broader conflict in the region.

"I'm deeply concerned about the situation in Georgia," Bush told reporters, adding he was worried about "a dangerous escalation in the crisis" as attacks have spread beyond the main conflict zone, threatening the peace elsewhere in a volatile region.

"We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops," he said.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush had spoken very recently with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and "reiterated the United States position to both leaders."

Bush also has official business on his agenda Sunday in meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders of the country. He will also attend church and speak about religious freedom, a sensitive matter in China, where the government allows worship only in officially approved churches.

Day for sports
But mostly this was a day for athletics, with Bush brushing off reporters' attempts to ask him about the Georgia crisis. He even invented his own event, speed-grazing, as he hopped from one sport to another, joking and offering encouragement to U.S. athletes.

After an early wake-up call, the president headed straight to the Laoshan Olympic mountain-biking course, passing iconic Tiananmen Square along the way, as wife Laura went on a tour of the Forbidden City. Bush, a regular biker, had been itching to get back to the course that he tried out with Chinese Olympic hopefuls in 2005 during his last visit to Beijing.

Dressed in a green T-shirt and black shorts, the president biked more than an hour on the course on a warm, muggy, hazy day, accompanied by secret service agents and aides. He dabbed at his face with a towel as he left, then called the course "really, really difficult."

"That's why I'm an amateur and they're Olympians," Bush added.

Cheeky behavior
After slipping into dry clothes, the president headed for the beach volleyball at Chaoyang Park, getting sandy with defending gold medalist Misty May-Treanor on the practice courts during a half-hour stop.

Bush posed for pictures with the U.S. players and staff. May-Treanor and her partner Kerri Walsh, took a break in practice so Bush could try out a few bumps himself.

The president needs some work on his passing, mis-hitting a pair off his knuckles. When May-Treanor passed the ball back to him, he acted like he was going to dive after it but decided to stay on his feet.

Then May-Treanor turned her back to the president, offering her bikinied rear for one of the traditional slaps that volleyball players frequently give each other.

"Mr. President, want to?" she asked, repeating an offer she made when Bush gave a pep talk to the U.S. athletes before Friday's opening ceremonies.

Bush smilingly gave a flick with the back of his hand to the small of her back instead.

The president then visited with men's players Phil Dalhausser, Todd Rogers, Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb and some of the Brazilian players before heading to watch the U.S. women's softball team practice at the Fengtai Sports Center.

Bush huddled with the team for photos, and when they broke up, there was a chalk handprint on the back of his sweat-stained blue plaid shirt.

"You've been `Bergied,' " he was told by the players, referring to the signature prank of outfielder Laura Berg.

Leaning against the chain-link fence surrounding the field, Bush watched the players warm up with calisthenics, then take batting practice.

Softball is being dropped as a medal event after Beijing, and the earliest it could be reinstated is 2016. Bush, one-time co-owner of the Texas Rangers major league baseball team, said he hopes that happens.

"It's good for the world to have girls playing softball," he said. "And these women are going to show young girls how to win."

Bush met with corporate sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team later in the day, then made his statement on Georgia before hustling to the Olympic basketball arena to catch the women's game between the United States and the Czech Republic.

With a number of empty seats, he settled into a section of seats about halfway up from the court with his wife, brother Marvin, daughter Barbara and others. Casually dressed, the president alternated between chatting with his entourage and leaning forward to catch the action, just like all the rest of the fans.