Obama, Romney gatecrash Olympic party

by Stephen Collinson, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 05 2012 07:23 PM | Updated as of Aug 08 2012 10:08 PM

WASHINGTON - America's gold medal winners suddenly have two very famous new friends: White House foes Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who are keen to pick up a glimmer of reflected Olympic glory.

Every four years, the five-ring summer Olympic circus unfolds alongside the one-ring brawl of the White House race, in a volatile mix of flag-waving patriotism and rare national unity ripe for political exploitation.

This year, Romney's dancing dressage horse, gymnastic heroines from swing states and the tax woes of gold medalists have stolen the headlines -- during Olympics broadcasts peppered with 2012 campaign ad blitzes.

Given the quadrennial synergy of Olympics games and elections it is not surprising campaigns scent political opportunity.

But Olympic politics can be treacherous too, and several presidents have been tested by Games darkened by global tensions.

This year, President Obama has taken to starting campaign events with praise for the latest triumphs of American Olympians in London.

In Virginia on Thursday, he led a bombastic chant of "USA, USA" and has enjoyed his official duty of telephoning gold medal winners like wonder swimmer Michael Phelps. He is also bursting with national pride at US gymnasts.

"I do not understand how, on this little balance beam, you're flipping around. I don't get that," Obama said.

The sports-mad president also gave a shout out to "Flying Squirrel" double gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas -- who just happens to be from Virginia, a swing state that could help Obama to a second White House term in November.

On Saturday, in his weekly address, Obama noted that in the Olympics, a bitterly divided nation could find common ground.

"These games remind us that for all our differences, we're Americans first," he said.

For a president who has faced fringe charges of not being an American at all, wrapping himself in the Stars and Stripes is a no-brainer less than 100 days before election day.

First Lady Michelle Obama also has an eye for a photo-op. She led the US delegation to London opening ceremonies and was pictured draping NBA superstars on the US basketball "Dream Team" in hugs.

Romney's Olympic Flop

For Republican Romney, the Olympics should have offered an easy political win.

He is renowned for rescuing the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002, after a corruption scandal, winning a reputation as a clever turnaround artist.

But the Republican stepped on his own lines last week in an interview with NBC, questioning Britain's preparation for 2012 which ignited a political firestorm.

It was not the only Olympic embarrassment for Romney, who is painted by Democrats as an out-of-touch rich man.

Rafalca, a horse owned by Romney's wife Ann, featured in Olympics dressage, an expensive and refined sport in which a prancing horse executes moves known as "piaffes" -- hardly likely to endear the candidate to the man on the street.

Like Obama, Romney is not below a spot of Olympian pandering, this week praising swimmer Missy Franklin as "just a Colorado girl with a big heart."

Like Virginia, Colorado is a key state in November's election.

The former Massachusetts governor has also joined a push to repeal an arcane measure that taxes athletes who bring home gold, silver or bronze medals.

Five rings politics

Bygone Olympics offered presidents moments of political opportunity, or peril.

Ronald Reagan opened the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, which turned into an outpouring of patriotism after dark decades dominated by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, an Iranian hostage crisis and recession.

The feel-good factor melded with the spirit of reinvention that Reagan was to conjure up in his "Morning in America" campaign, which led to a landslide reelection.

His predecessor Jimmy Carter though experienced bitter Olympic politics, leading a boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Most of the Soviet bloc repaid the favor in Los Angeles four years later, but those Games are more remembered for the heroics of Carl Lewis.

In 1996, Bill Clinton got a good re-election year photo-op as he rubbed shoulders with Muhammad Ali who lit the flame for the Atlanta Games.

But Clinton was soon thrust into crisis management when a homemade pipe bomb exploded in the city's Olympic Park.

In 2008, president George W. Bush faced an Olympian conundrum, as Democratic candidates, then senator Obama and Hillary Clinton, called on him to boycott opening ceremonies in Beijing to protest human rights abuses.

But the president went anyway, reasoning that the vital China-US relationship would be damaged by a decision to stay away.

Obama himself has also fallen foul of Olympic politics.

Early in his presidency, he was embarrassed after flying to Copenhagen to lobby the International Olympic Committee on behalf of his home city of Chicago, which was bidding for the 2016 event.

But to Obama's dismay, Rio got the Games instead.

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