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Bush Holds Firm on Plan to Attend Olympic Opening

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

CRAWFORD, Tex., April 11 -- President Bush suggested Friday that he is unlikely to bow to demands to skip the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games in Beijing, saying he will attend the Olympics while continuing to raise concerns with President Hu Jintao about China's crackdown in Tibet.

In a television interview at his ranch, Bush said he plans to attend the Games to support U.S. athletes, but he did not directly answer whether he will stay away from the opening ceremonies, as some other Western leaders are doing.

"Are you still insisting on going to those opening ceremonies?" asked ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz.

"My plans haven't changed," Bush responded. "But what I find interesting about this, just so you know, is that this isn't a new issue for me. Every time I meet with the Chinese president, and I've met a lot with him, I bring up religious freedom and human rights."

Bush emphasized that he was the first U.S. president to meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and added later: "It says I'm supporting our athletes, is what it says. And I don't view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event."

The Chinese leadership had hoped that hosting the Summer Games would provide a public relations bonanza for the communist country. Instead, it has had to cope with escalating protests over its policies on Tibet and Darfur and other human rights issues. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has urged countries not to bring "irrelevant political factors" into the Games.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, said Thursday that Bush should consider skipping the opening ceremonies unless China drastically changes its policies, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) took a similar position. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said Bush should immediately decide not to attend.

Two major U.S. allies, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have announced that they will not attend the opening ceremonies in August. Brown's office said later that he had never planned to go to the start of the Games but will participate in the closing ceremonies.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also has told China's government that he may not attend the Games.

Boycotts and protests have a mixed history at the Olympics. The most prominent were in 1980, when the United States led a Western boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and in 1984, when the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations refused to attend the Los Angeles Games.

Most of the demands for a presidential boycott in Beijing have come from Democrats and human rights groups, such as the Free Tibet Campaign and the Save Darfur Coalition. China is the largest foreign investor in Sudan's oil industry.

But McCain and some other conservatives also have begun endorsing the idea, as well. Erick Erickson, founder and editor of RedState.com, a conservative blog, launched an online petition this week that says Bush's attendance at the opening ceremonies would make him a "propaganda tool" of the Chinese government.

"Our President, who has spent eight years liberating parts of the world from tyranny, should not give the seal of approval on China's behavior -- approval his presence at the Olympics would most certainly give to the Chinese people," the petition states.

Olympic historians say presidential attendance at the Summer Games is a relatively recent phenomenon, noting that most did not go to Games outside the United States. President Herbert Hoover skipped the 1932 Games altogether, though they were held in Los Angeles.

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