President Obama stood at the front of the East Room of the White House on Thursday afternoon, with the First Lady and Vice President beside him, and the athletes came to him, one by one, nearly 600 of them, to shake his hand. Some had medals around their necks. All had smiles on their faces. It was a rainy day in Washington, forcing indoors the ceremony honoring the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, but by the standards of the typical White House victory tour, this one managed to rise above.
For one thing, it was one of the last of these ceremonies Obama will host, as he prepares to leave the White House following two terms and eight years there. When the athletes presented him with a pair of team-signed surfboards — symbolizing a sport that will be added to the Olympic program beginning in 2020 — he joked, “I’m going to have a lot of time to surf next year.”
The president seemed remarkably engaged in the lengthy, single-file meet-and-greet, surprising some of the athletes with his knowledge of their events and their successes. Either he was well-prepared by aides or he had absorbed a lot of NBC Olympics coverage in August and managed to hold onto it.
“It was amazing for him to talk about specific moments. When you’re running a country, you don’t think you’ll have time to tune in to so much of the Olympics and be updated,” nine-time Olympic track and field medalist Allyson Felix said. “It made it a really special moment.”
When he went to the microphone to speak, Obama cracked a few jokes. He would have entered the room with a running, flipping floor routine, he said, except he “can’t even touch my toes.” He singled out some of the best individual performances of the summer — gymnast Simone Biles, boxer Claressa Shields, shooter Kim Rhode and others.
“And then,” Obama said, “there’s Katie Ledecky.”
As the 19-year-old swimming champion from Bethesda — honored the night before as Team USA’s female athlete of the Olympics — smiled and turned as red as the official team warmups the athletes wore on the visit, Obama joked about her historic haul in Rio de Janeiro: four gold medals and a silver.
“I was nervous she was going to ask me to hold all her medals while I was speaking,” Obama said.
Later, standing outside on the front steps of the White House, Ledecky said Obama told her during the meet-and-greet that he expects her to keep going for at least three more Olympics — and joked that it would take the rest of the world that long to catch up to her.
“I’d be honored to compete at one more, two more, however many more Olympics,” said Ledecky, who interrupted her first month of class at Stanford to return home for the awards banquet and White House ceremony. “Just to know we have the president’s support is pretty cool.”
Obama also used the opportunity to highlight the diversity of Team USA, saying the team, like the nation itself, is “more than the sum of its parts.”
“There’s something special about that,” he said. “All races, all faiths, all traditions, all orientations, all marching together under that same proud flag, not bound by a creed or a color, but by our devotion to an enduring set of ideals — that we’re all created equal, that we can think, and worship and love as we please, and that we can pursue our own version of happiness. That’s a great gift, that’s what makes us strong.”
There was one more thing that elevated this one above the typical White House victory ceremony: Two other groups of athletes from long-ago days who never got their proper honors were added to the day’s agenda.
In one group was 1968 Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who famously and defiantly raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City — only to be kicked off the team and sent home. In the other group were the families of 17 African-American athletes from the 1936 team — including the great Jesse Owens — who also never received their just rewards.
“We’re proud of them,” Obama said of Carlos and Smith. “Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed.”
Outside, on the White House steps, with the rain falling in the background, Felix made note of the way Carlos and Smith’s protest is being echoed by a new generation of athletes with a mind to use their platform to promote social change, and said, “Especially with everything that’s happening now, as athletes we do have a voice, and we want to show that change should happen. And so we want to use our voice for that in a peaceful way — because we still are still so proud to represent this country.”