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Public Papers - 1990 - March

Remarks at the United States Olympic Committee Dinner


Senator Mitchell, thank you, George. And let me just say this: Good athletes can't run on dirty air. And George Mitchell is doing more to lead this country towards a new clean air bill than anyone else, and I am very grateful to him for his leadership there in the Senate. And thank you. I know that the minute this is over, he'll rush back up because the Senate is in session. I know he can afford to rent a tuxedo, but -- [laughter] -- he comes down, leaves, and in just a couple of minutes you turn on CNN, and there he'll be up there on the floor. So, thank you, sir, for taking time.

To you, Barney, thank you, sir, for being here and, more important even than that, for what you and your great organization are doing to support the Olympics.

To Bob Helmick and the members of the Olympic Committee, my thanks to all of you; and to Don and Vernie, for providing a little professionalism in the announcing; and to all the world-class athletes assembled here. I don't want to date -- well, put it this way, I don't want to see that Bob Mathias is dated chronologically -- [laughter] -- but he and I were elected to Congress on the very same day in 1966, and I'm delighted to see my old comrade in politics here.

It's been a big day for me. I received some of the Olympic leaders in the Oval Office, and just now I've been given some wonderful Olympic sweats backstage. I'll wear them with pride and hope I don't get in trouble for impersonating an athlete. [Laughter]

Bar and I are leaving before dinner, and I apologize for that. We heard you were having broccoli. [Laughter] But we do excuse ourselves. The thing that some of you from out of town don't know, if the guy that speaks leaves before dinner, the talk is refreshingly short; and I will try to oblige you all so these guys can sit down.

But it's a special evening. And in ancient Greece -- true story -- competing in the games was the highest honor a citizen could receive. And back then, athletes that won didn't pay taxes for the rest of their lives. I'll get back to you on that. [Laughter]

Hey, listen, it's an honor to be among such talent -- all of you here and many former medalists. Others are hard at work to bring home the gold in '92, '96, even '98, when, if you'll pardon the plug, we hope to see the games back in America in two of our most spectacular cities, Atlanta and Salt Lake City.

Let me put in a plug for fitness. We want to see every kid in America get and stay in shape. Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing a great job leading the President's Council on Physical Fitness, and I'd love to have each and every one of you help him in your own way. We need your support on this.

These men and women behind me represent some of America's greatest hopes and aspirations. They are portraits of pure dedication. Maybe it's their discipline that sets them apart, their natural talents, as George said, their will to win. But I think it's something more. They aspire to a kind of excellence that transcends the triumph of mind over muscle, of bodies over stopwatch, distance, high bar, hurdle. Their sense of purpose breaks through barriers of every kind. Through the hours and weeks and years of training, with every breath taken, with every heartbeat, they're moving toward a moment -- and you know the oath -- where they will compete ``for the honor of our country and for the glory of sport.'' And they prove that in sport no one is advantaged. Where you come from, the color of your skin, whether you're rich, you're poor -- it doesn't matter. It's just you against your opponent; it's your own limits.

Olympic athletes understand and show the world what it means simply to strive. They teach us about the triumph of the spirit, about breaking through barriers, and they speak to our highest ideals. Sometimes it's about beating odds and defying expectations. A little girl with polio from Clarksville, Tennessee, grew up to make the bronze medal-winning 1956 U.S. relay team. Four years later she became the first U.S. woman to win three Olympic golds. Tonight, she's fulfilling another ambition: working with the children's foundation she established. Her name: Wilma Rudolph.

During another Olympiad, an underdog discus thrower fell during practice, tore the cartilage in his ribcage. Somehow, over the next 2 days, with his torso turning shades of black, green, blue, and yellow, he made it to the finals, made one last throw, and won the gold medal. He's since become the only athlete to win gold medals in four successive Olympiads. You applauded him tonight: Al Oerter. He's with us here.

At other times, Olympians break barriers of another kind. In Berlin -- we'll never forget it -- in 1936, Hitler's Olympic Games were supposed to showcase his theories about the superiority of his so-called master race, until a 23-year-old black American, Jesse Owens, exploded to victories in the 100-, the 200-, and the 400-meter relay -- and Hitler left the stadium. It was an athletic triumph, but more than that, it really was a victory for humanity. Ruth Owens was at the White House earlier today. She, too, I believe, is with us here tonight. She received, in her husband Jesse Owens' memory, the Congressional Gold Medal. His sprints to glory will forever be celebrated in America's heart. When Jesse Owens broke through a barrier made of man's own ignorance, the world would never be the same again.

Olympiads, like Olympians, are unique: they unite the world in purpose and principle. Something as small as a ping-pong ball brought Americans to China, paving the way for a breakthrough in relations in 1971. The world smiled then, as Zhou Enlai stood next to a 19-year-old from Santa Monica, discussing the hippie movement with him and gazing at his purple pants and his ponytail.

If Olympic competition is a drama, it's about great people and great contests, uniting mind with body, athlete with coach, player with player, toward a common purpose. Among so many of them, who could forget 1980, in a tiny town in upstate New York, when a group of American kids -- one of them here with us tonight -- grabbed the American flag, took to the ice, and beat the unbeatable.

You watch an athlete in motion, and you might just see the bonds of human limits shattered in a fraction of a second, redefined forever. But the real lesson Olympic athletes teach, the hope and inspiration they offer, is that nations might aspire to the same measure of excellence in their own conduct.

If athletes have the courage to break barriers, so must nations. And if the athlete's mind and body are among the highest expressions of God's perfection, nations should aspire to the same perfection. If we could make it so -- and with enough will, we can -- what would we want the world to look like by the next Olympiad?

In a rebirth of the Old World, in a new Europe, we would heal the wounds of 40 years of false division on a continent made whole and free by the will of its people. In South Africa, as in every nation, we would see the abolition of racial and religious discrimination, making bigotry and bias the dusty relics of the past once and for all. In Asia and in this hemisphere, we would count the blessings of democracy, pluralism, and self-determination.

The Olympics, like democracy, are a kind of dialog, a way that nations can converse in the language of friendly competition, not deadly conflict. What nations can learn from their athletes, I believe in all my heart, can truly move the world toward greater freedom, justice, security, prosperity, and understanding.

You might say, Well, does that sound impossible? So did the 4-minute mile. So did so many barriers believed to be insurmountable, from the 29-foot long jump to the triple axel. Last year we saw a massive political barrier crumble, as young men and women joined hands atop the Berlin Wall. In 1992 we'll see skiers fly by in an icy blur of speed. We'll see sprinters explode out of the blocks so hard that the Earth may almost move. We'll see a half ton of iron hoisted skyward and a vaulting pole handled like the bow of a fine violin. We'll see tiny gymnasts defy gravity, bending the laws of physics. When the world watches those athletes, let it be reminded how much it has to learn from them. Let every nation of the world know that the only barrier remaining now is the will to make the world better.

To the once and future medalists with us tonight: You know that we admire you. You're often told that what you do brings honor to your nation. And so it does. But in these times of great change, we must do more than simply admire: we should strive to be your equals in our own pursuits. As we approach a new Olympiad, may we all remember that just as these athletes pursue a dream and serve as an inspiration for their country, America still serves as a dream and an inspiration for the entire world.

So, keep training, keep struggling, keep breaking through barriers, and the world will follow you. Thank you all. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 8 p.m. in the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Bernard Tresnowski, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association; Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee; Don Criqui, of NBC Sports; and Vern Lundquist, of CBS Sports.

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