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Presidents Not Always in Olympic Spirit

With his decision to attend the opening ceremonies of the 29th Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, President Bush joins the string of American presidents who have added political controversy to the supposedly apolitical sports event.

The first to emerge was Herbert Hoover, president during the 1932 Summer Olympics that took place in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that the games were held during a worldwide depression that made money for travelling scarce, Hoover took some heat when he chose not to attend -- a decision that made him the first of the few sitting heads of government not to appear at Olympic Games hosted by their own countries. He did, however, compose a special message for the games, read aloud by Vice President Charles Curtis at the July 29 opening ceremonies.

American presidents were once again at the forefront of Olympic dispute in the years leading up to the games of 1980 and 1984, when tension between the United States and the Soviet Union came into play. On Feb. 20, 1980, the White House issued a statement announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Moscow games, a move advised and supported by then President Jimmy Carter. Four years later, however, when the U.S.S.R. organized a similar boycott of the Los Angeles summer games, the U.S. stance on politicization of the Olympics had changed. In an informal exchange with White House reporters, President Reagan called the Soviet decision "unfair," chastising them for allowing political motivations to get in the way of the Olympic spirit.

In comparison, President George W. Bush's decision to attend the Beijing games amid vocal disapproval from human rights activists may seem rather tame. Then again, he has already had a significant brush with Olympic controversy, referring to the dudettes of the 2006 Olympic snowboarding team as "dudesses" in his remarks honoring the American athletes of Turin.