In an emotional tribute to Utah as home to the Olympics, to Americans as heroes to the world and to the international visitors who wept along with us all in the wake of Sept. 11, President Bush arrived in Salt Lake City Friday and stood sentinel over the opening ceremonies of the Games.
At the Utah State Capitol Friday afternoon, Bush declared Utah the perfect place to hold the 2002 Winter Games because of its natural beauty, its caring people and its rich history.
Before presiding over the opening ceremonies in Rice Eccles Olympic Stadium, the president met with members of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then held a quick, private reception at the Capitol with local dignitaries, including Republican stalwarts and members of the Utah Legislature.
There, throughout his 15-minute address, the president touched on the disasters of Sept. 11 and how the Olympics are bringing together Utahns, Americans and the world. As he succinctly put it: "It's an important time for us to come together."
He went on to say that the next two weeks mark the second of two historically significant events that have unified Utah with the nation, and now the world. "In 1869 we were tied together by the railroad, and today the world is united in Utah through the Games.
While the Olympics always are significant each time they are held, no matter where, the events of Sept. 11 have made them especially important and heart-felt because of the sympathy and strong support that has come to the United States from around the globe.
Citing one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence, which is now on view at the Capitol rotunda yards from where Bush spoke, the president asked: "Why are we so intent upon defending these values? We love liberty and freedom and we will defend it all over the world."
One hour before the opening ceremonies, Bush attended a gathering of U.S. Olympic team athletes and their coaches at the HPER gym on the University of Utah campus, where he introduced three New York firefighters who were among the hundreds who responded to the World Trade Center disaster at ground zero.
Wearing a U.S. Olympic team jacket, Bush said: "I really don't deserve to wear this."
He then introduced three New York Port Authority police officers, one of whom he embraced, who brought the tattered American flag unearthed from the World Trade Center rubble that was used to christen the opening ceremonies of the Games.
"This flag serves as a symbol of U.S. strength and our fight for freedom," Bush told the athletes. "These Games come at a perfect time; yes, one of sadness, but for the U.S., bringing out our best, and I can't wait for this flag to fly tonight.
"You will represent us with class and dignity and courage. And you will come together in friendly competition to show that our spirit is bigger than evil and terror. You will become heroes overnight," he continued. "This is an awesome responsibility, but you are up to it, and you will do the best you possibly can."
And with that, he ended with the phrase used by one brave passenger who joined his fellow travelers in trying to overtake the hijackers on one of the four planes intentionally crashed Sept. 11.
Upon his arrival at Salt Lake City International Airport on Friday, joined on Air Force One by Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, both Republicans, Bush was greeted warmly by Gov. Mike Leavitt and his wife, Jackie. The plane landed on time at 12:35 p.m. Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney and SLOC chief financial officer Frazier Bullock also were on the tarmac to greet them.
First, Bush and his wife, Laura, spent about half an hour with members of the First Presidency of the LDS Church.
Bush said they talked about their respective families and heritage. The LDS Church presidency gave the president a genealogical listing of his and Laura's family trees, after which Bush commented: "I was hoping there wasn't any horse-thieves back there."
President Hinckley confirmed, "I can tell you he comes from good stock and so does she."
In referring to the Olympics, and its timing after the Sept. 11 tragedies, Bush said, "It's an important time for us to come together."
Meeting Bush at the state Capitol were Kofi Annan, who is the secretary general of the United Nations, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Both Bush and Leavitt, during their afternoon Capitol Hill addresses, took great care in praising Utah and America. But they also were cognizant of the international visitors and athletes and included them in their remarks.
During his speech, Bush said with the 2002 Olympics will come emotions. "Tears, joy and pride." But he said that's OK, because "the world has shed many tears the last five months."
He said he knows that the U.S. athletes, as with all athletes, will make the world proud, no matter what their nationality. But when the winners' national flags are raised and their anthems sung, "We all will come together."
Preceding Bush's introduction, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, filling the steps of the marble staircase at the Capitol, sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Bush smiled throughout the hymn, nodded his head, tapped his toes and at one point, gave a thumbs-up sign. It was the same hymn that was played outside the Pentagon last fall at the one-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, the hymn brought the president and Laura Bush to tears.
In introducing the president, Leavitt became emotional when he talked about the power of the flame from Greece, of how in recent days it has brought light to individual lives in Utah and across the nation.
"I heard a story about a Texas school boy," Leavitt said, facing the president. "There was an opening in the running of the torch. And the Olympic torch person went to the school and asked to have one of the children carry the torch — (asking for) someone who is struggling and who needs a lift.
"They picked a 13-year-old boy, and I got an e-mail later from a teacher who said the boy doesn't sit alone anymore."
"This is what the Olympics do. They lift us up and unite us."
Bush heartily agreed. "These Games will bring us lasting memories. I am glad that the world will see the hospitality of the West and this global tradition" of the Olympics, he said.
After meeting with the president, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said the timing of the Olympics could not be better.
"I think it's great for Utah and for the United States."
Bush made a point of thanking Utah for putting on the Games, saying he knows "what a great deal of work it is."
It got harder near the opening ceremonies than organizers predicted.
High winds from the storm front that moved into Utah Thursday night destroyed three large helium balloons from which harnessed athletes were supposed to perform aerial stunts while hanging by long ropes. It was to be the ceremonial finale, and while two helium balloons remained intact, organizers were still trying to decide at the last moment whether to scrap the exhibition or proceed as planned, said SLOC President Mitt Romney.
But other than that, and the weather-related cancellation of the women's downhill skiing practice runs, Romney said he couldn't have asked for a better day.
Neither could U.S. Olympic speed-skater Apolo Ohno. After Bush's address to Ohno and his fellow athletes, he said: "I'm speechless. It's a great honor. I'm a little emotional right now. I really appreciate him coming and doing this for us."
Contributing: Norma Wagner