Members of America's Summer Olympic team are preparing to head to China after a formal send-off at the White House.  VOA's Paula Wolfson reports, President Bush says he is looking forward to joining them in Beijing.

About two dozen members of Team USA went to the White House.

They represented all the athletes at a ceremony in the Rose Garden, where President Bush praised their accomplishments and their character.

"In Beijing, you will also represent our nation's character," the president noted.  "As ambassadors of goodwill, you will be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  And by showing respect for your competitors, you will demonstrate America's respect for the world."

About 600 U.S. athletes will compete in 30 different sports at the Games -from swimming to fencing, and from judo to gymnastics.  The president noted they represent the diversity of America - a mix of races, ethnic backgrounds and ages.

"Some of you are young, the youngest teammate is a 15-year-old diver, and some of you are older. There is a 58-year-old sailor, which gives this 62-year-old mountain biker hope that you may need me in Beijing," the president joked.

But the president's role in Beijing is more likely to be that of a sports fan and cheerleader-in-chief.  He has said on numerous occasions that he is going to Beijing to support America's athletes and see some great competition.

And while his decision to attend the opening ceremonies has proven controversial, the president made clear in the Rose Garden that he is excited about the prospect of seeing the Games in person.

"Laura and I look forward to joining you for the Olympics," he said.  "I am fired up to go.  I cannot wait to salute our athletes, and I cannot wait to share in the joy of your triumphs.  And so today we send you off with congratulations on the success you have already achieved, and on the accomplishments we know will be yours in Beijing."

Critics have said the president should not attend the opening ceremonies because of the Chinese government's human rights record and its policies regarding Tibet and Darfur.

But members of the Olympic team who came to the White House say they cannot wait to share the experience of being at the Olympics with the president.

Kerri Walsh - a defending gold medalist in beach volleyball - says it is important to keep the true meaning of the Olympics in mind.

"What is amazing about the Olympic is it is a sporting event and not a political event," Walsh said.  "It is when the world can come together at a peaceful event.  And it is an honor that President Bush will be attending the games and will be at the opening ceremonies to represent our country."

The Summer Olympics open August 8 in Beijing.