WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama welcomed the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams to the White House on Thursday to celebrate their record-breaking run in Rio.
Hundreds of Olympic athletes clad in red Nike track jackets squeezed into the East Room of the White House as rainy weather forced the reception indoors.
“I was going to do a floor routine on the way out with Simone, but we decided it was a little too crowded,” Obama quipped at the start of his remarks, referring to gold medal- winning gymnast Simone Biles.
“And you can’t touch your toes,” joked first lady Michelle Obama, who stood with the president at the podium, along with Biles, Vice President Joe Biden and Paralympic soccer player Josh Brunais.
President Obama praised Team USA for winning 46 gold medals and for making the United States the first country in 40 years to top the medal chart in every category.
Women especially dominated the games this year, he said.
“2016 belonged to America’s women Olympians,” Obama said. “Our women alone won more gold than most countries did.”
Obama also paid tribute during the reception to former Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were invited to attend the ceremony by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The two African-American athletes were sent home from the 1968 Olympic Games for their raised-fist protest on the medals podium.
“Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed,” Obama said.
The actions of Smith and Carlos have garnered more attention in recent weeks as African-American National Football League and college players have faced a backlash for protesting racial injustice during games.
Obama attributed part of the success of the U.S. Olympic team to its diversity.
“That’s one of the most extraordinary things about our Olympic team,” he said.”There’s no kid in America who can’t look at our Olympic team and see themselves somewhere.”
After his remarks, Biles and Brunais presented Obama with two surf boards signed by Olympians to commemorate the addition of surfing to the 2020 summer Olympics.
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Dan Grebler)