President Bush and his wife, Laura, gave the U.S. Olympic team the big presidential sendoff at the White House Monday, stuffing the athletes with duck pastrami and cheese puffs and telling them, "In Beijing you will convey our nation's most cherished values."
It actually will be the record number of official Olympics sponsors who will convey our nation's most cherished values to the world's largest advertising growth market, but have you ever tried to get Coke, McDonald's, Starbucks, Nokia and Gatorade into one ballroom? And besides it sounds better to talk to the athletes.
"As ambassadors of liberty," Bush said, "you will represent America's love for freedom and our regard for human rights and human dignity." That was a mild reference to China's human-rights record. Bush has turned down calls from human rights groups to boycott the Opening Ceremonies as a protest of the crackdown in Tibet, arguing that the Games shouldn't be a political event and that there are better times to discuss serious issues.
"In Beijing, you'll also represent our nation's character," Bush continued. "As ambassadors of goodwill, you will be humble in victory and gracious in defeat."
See, this stuff sounds great, but is it really part of our nation's character to be humble in victory? Remember the men's 400-meter relay team's celebration at the 2000 Games in Sydney? Jon Drummond, Brian Lewis, Bernard Williams and Maurice Greene struck muscleman poses and draped American flags all over themselves. Dozens of people worldwide were shocked.
They later apologized for a lack of the kind of decorum Olympics officials prefer, but their joyous display was a great example of the youthful exuberance, the cockiness even, that's at the heart of our nation's character.
And being gracious in defeat is nice when you can get it, but frankly, we Americans as a group don't have a lot of time for losers, though in special cases we're willing to make a little cult around a few of them.
But even when an awful lot of Americans are thinking it, presidents rarely say things like "Go on over there and kick some butt, you guys, and then we'll pound some Budweiser! Woohoo!" This president has a history that would make that statement even more inappropriate than usual, and anyway Budweiser isn't even American anymore. So instead he said, "I can't wait to share in the joy of your triumphs."
Which is nice too.
Bush didn't actually hand out the masks some American athletes will reportedly take with them to Beijing to combat the effects of the horrendously polluted air. That wouldn't have gone over too well in diplomatic channels.
The Wall Street Journal report on the top-secret-design masks says the American athletes will risk offending their Chinese hosts if they wear the masks. Which, given the relative unlikelihood that an American athlete will be thrown in a Chinese prison, is probably preferable to offending one's lungs on the eve of the competition of a lifetime. Winning is more of a cherished value around here than not offending someone. Sorry, it just is.
Bush also didn't send off the NBC announcers who won't be going to Beijing at all, but will call the games and matches of at least 10 sports off of monitors at 30 Rock in New York. An NBC spokesman told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune that the move was not intended to save money, but was "part of a mandate from the IOC to reduce strain on the host city by bringing fewer people."
The spokesman, Brian Walker, said NBC hadn't planned to publicize the fact that some of its announcers would be in New York, but that the network wasn't trying to keep it secret either. He also said the commentators would be instructed not to say misleading things, such as referring to Beijing as "here" when they're in New York. That's something ESPN's announcers were guilty of doing during this summer's Euro 2008 soccer tournament.
"There's no sporting event that unites people like the Olympics," Bush told the U.S. team. "All Americans will rally behind you when you compete in Beijing."
And we'll stay behind you too. We'll even let you convey our most cherished values by selling us stuff.
As long as you win.