Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden welcomed Team USA — about 600 Olympians and Paralympians — to the White House Thursday, congratulating them not only for their gold, silver and bronze medals but also for their representation of a diverse set of ideals that inspired Americans during the Rio summer games.
The event started with a picture of Mrs. Obama towering over gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, posing with her elbow over Biles’ head.
President Obama joked that he was going to begin the ceremony with a floor routine but he decided against that because he can’t even touch his toes.
The president emphasized that it wasn’t just high scores or fast times that made Team USA Olympic champions, it was also the team’s diversity.
“Everybody’s from all different kinds of backgrounds,” he said, adding they are all “very good looking” with white teeth and shiny eyes, prompting the first lady to shout out “fruits and vegetables!”
“We’ve become something more than just the sum of our parts. We’ve become Americans, together. And there’s something special about that — 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,” President Obama said.
The president also recognized Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who’s black power salute on the podium created controversy in 1968.
“Their powerful, silent protest in the 1968 games was controversial but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed,” he said.
Obama then recounted Jesse Owens, whose family was in attendance, for his performance “under the gaze of Adolf Hitler” in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin but “whooped” the competition.
The president said he continues “to be inspired by paralympians” and stressed that the Rio Olympics “belonged to America’s women Olympians.”
“As father of two young women, for [Malia and Sasha] to have that example of health, drive, competition, persistence and strength, it makes me really proud,” Obama said.
The president recognized several individual Olympians, including Katie Ledecky.
“I was nervous if she was going to ask me to hold all her medals while I was speaking or something,” he joked.
Obama called Michael Phelps “the greatest Olympian of all-time” — remarking that breaking a 2,000 year record was “pretty impressive” given you have to “go back to the Greeks” to find the previous record holder.
The president also singled out Sam Kendricks, the Army reservist participating in the pole vault who gained national respect when he abandoned an attempt to stand at attention for the national anthem playing on the other side of the venue.
Obama was presented with two surfboards, which Biles explained — at the president’s urging — represented that surfing will be an Olympic sport in the 2020 summer games.
“I’m going to have a lot of time to surf next year,” Obama quipped.
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