Politics, pageantry blend for Bush at Olympics

Aug. 09, 2008, 2:47 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Most days, being the U.S. president means trying to extinguish one blooming crisis after another. Then there are days like Saturday.

Mountain biking on the Olympic course. Getting in a couple of hits with the women's beach volleyball team. Chuckling after being the butt of a softball player's practical joke. Picking events and knowing he could get in, with a police escort ensuring traffic wasn't a problem.

U.S. President George W. Bush, a longtime sports fan, was immersing himself in the Olympic spirit with abandon, acting like a kid - even when his body was reminding him that he's 62.

There were reminders that the world's troubles follow wherever Bush goes. He was given regular updates after Russia sent columns of tanks and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases Friday after Georgia launched a major military offensive earlier in the day to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The fast-changing hostilities threaten to ignite a broader conflict in the region.

Bush's most official business comes Sunday in meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders of the country. He will also attend church and speak about religious freedom, a sensitive matter in China, where the government allows worship only in officially approved churches.

But mostly this was a day for athletics, with Bush brushing off reporters' attempts to ask him about the Georgia crisis. He even invented his own event, speed-grazing, as he hopped from one sport to another, joking and offering encouragement to U.S. athletes.

After an early wakeup call, the president headed straight to the Laoshan Olympic mountain-biking course, passing iconic Tiananmen Square along the way, as wife Laura went on a tour of the Forbidden City. Bush, a regular biker, had been itching to get back to the course that he tried out with Chinese Olympic hopefuls in 2005 during his last visit to Beijing.

Dressed in a green T-shirt and black shorts, the president biked more than an hour on the course on a warm, muggy, hazy day, accompanied by secret service agents and aides. He dabbed at his face with a towel as he left, then called the course "really, really difficult."

"That's why I'm an amateur and they're Olympians," Bush added.

After slipping on dry clothes, the president headed for the beach volleyball at Chaoyang Park, getting sandy with defending gold medalist Misty May-Treanor on the practice courts during a half-hour stop.

Bush posed for pictures with the U.S. players and staff. May-Treanor and her partner Kerri Walsh, took a break in practice so Bush could try out a few bumps himself.

The president needs some work on his passing, mis-hitting a pair off his knuckles. When May-Treanor passed the ball back to him, he acted like he was going to dive after it but decided to stay on his feet.

Then May-Treanor turned her back to the president, offering her bikinied rear for one of the traditional slaps that volleyball players frequently give each other.

"Mr. President, want to?" she asked, repeating an offer she made when Bush gave a pep talk to the U.S. athletes before Friday's opening ceremonies.

Bush smilingly gave a flick with the back of his hand to the small of her back instead.

The president then visited with men's players Phil Dalhausser, Todd Rogers, Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb and some of the Brazilian players before heading to watch the U.S. women's softball team practice at the Fengtai Sports Center.

Bush huddled with the team for photos, and when they broke up, there was a chalk handprint on the back of his sweat-stained blue plaid shirt.

"You've been 'Bergied,' " he was told by the players, referring to the signature prank of outfielder Laura Berg.

Leaning against the chain-link fence surrounding the field, Bush watched the players warm up with calisthenics, then take batting practice.

Bush was to meet with corporate sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team later in the day, followed by women's volleyball.

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Associated Press writers Mark S. Smith and Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.

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