President George Bush stood accused of appropriating the Olympic movement for political means last night, amid reports he was planning to visit Athens later this week to watch some sporting events, including a potential gold-medal winning bid by the Iraqi football team.
According to unconfirmed reports in the US, the White House is examining the logistical and security implications of Mr Bush travelling to the Greek capital in time for Saturday’s football final. Iraq, whose progress to the semi-finals of the tournament has been one of the games’ most captivating stories, will meet Paraguay tomorrow night for a possible place in the finals.
The Greek foreign ministry confirmed last night that the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, will be in Athens for the closing ceremony.
But it is the potential presidential visit to the games that will fuel a dispute between the election campaign of Mr Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, and the US Olympic Committee over an advert which links Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s participation in the games with the US administration’s “war on terror”.
The advert, which has been broadcast in the US for the past week, begins with footage from the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, during which 13 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists, and continues with a narrator saying: “Freedom is spreading through the world like a sunrise. And this Olympics there will be two more free nations and two less terrorist regimes.”
As the flags of Afghanistan and Iraq flutter in the breeze, it concludes: “With strength, resolve and courage, democracy will triumph over terror and hope will defeat hatred.”
Under American copyright law, only the US Olympic Com mittee has the right to use the Olympic insignia, images and trademarks for marketing purposes.
Initially, the committee reportedly called for the advert to be withdrawn, but its spokesman retreated from that last night.
“We have contacted the president’s election campaign team and asked them to forward us a copy of the advert. Once we have reviewed it and determined the type and extent of the use of the Olympic name, we will decide how to progress,” a spokesman, Darryl Seibel, said.
The committee might want to avoid a confrontation with Mr Bush, but it appears that the objects of his affections have no such qualms.
To the embarrassment of their media handlers in Athens, members of the Iraqi football team have reacted furiously to the news that their efforts are being used to aid Mr Bush’s efforts to win a second term in the White House.
The team’s coach, Adnan Hamd, told Sports Illustrated magazine: “My problem is not with the American people. They are with what America has done; destroyed everything. The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the stadium and there are shootings on the road?”
One of the team’s midfield players, Ahmad Manajid, accused Mr Bush of “slaughtering” Iraqi men and women. “How will he meet his God having slaughtered so many? I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that make them a terrorist?” he said.
Mark Clark, the spokesman for the Iraqi Olympic squad in Athens, accused journalists of taking advantage of the players. “They are not very sophisticated politically. Whoever posed these questions knew the answers would be negative. It is possible something was lost in translation. The players are entitled to their opinions but we are disappointed,” he said.
Mr Bush, not hitherto known as a keen football fan, has made repeated references to the performances of the Iraqi football team in his campaign speeches.
After its unexpected 4-2 victory over Portugal, he told a crowd in Oregon that the fact the team was in Athens was fantastic, adding: “It wouldn’t have been free if the United States hadn’t acted.”