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Obama celebrates US Olympians

2016-09-30 11:48
Barack Obama (AFP Photo)

Washington - US President Barack Obama welcomed relatives of Jesse Owens and 17 other black Americans who competed at the 1936 Olympics to the White House on Thursday, 80 years after they were denied the honour.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos - the black athletes whose clenched-fist medal podium salute at the 1968 Summer Games saw them ostracized by US Olympic officials for years - were also received as Obama and first lady Michelle Obama honored America's 2016 Olympic and Paralympic competitors.

There were light-hearted acknowledgements of some of America's best-known Olympians, including swimming greats Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, and the recollection of distance runner Abbey D'Agostino's sporting spirit in helping a competitor to finish a 5 000m heat after a collision.

In noting the diversity of America's 2016 Rio Olympics team Obama made mention of gymnast Simone Biles, shot putter Michelle Carter, swimmer Simone Manuel and boxer Claressa Shields, all African-Americans.

He also noted that fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first US woman to compete in the Olympics in a hijab.

"There are some firsts that show the world America's greatness doesn't come only from high scores or fast times, but from our diversity and our tolerance and our open hearts," he said.

Back in 1936, however, America's black athletes, including quadruple gold medalist Owens, received no such recognition upon returning home from Berlin.

Obama said they - and Smith and Carlos - were among those "who paved the way" for the diversity on current US teams.

"We're honored to have the legendary Tommie Smith and John Carlos here today," Obama said. "Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed."

He noted that Carlos and Smith are now recognised in the newly opened museum of African American History and Culture, as is Owens.

"But it wasn’t just Jesse," the president said. "It was other African American athletes in the middle of Nazi Germany under the gaze of Adolf Hitler that put a lie to notions of racial superiority - whooped them - and taught them a thing or two about democracy, and taught them a thing or two about the American character.

"So we’re honored to have many of their families here today," he said.

Nowadays, Obama said, "there's no kid in America who can't look at our Olympic team and see themselves somewhere ... And there's something special about that - all races, all faiths, all traditions, all orientations, all marching together under that same proud flag."

Read more on:    olympics 2016  |  barack obama

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