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Obama Hosts U.S. Olympics Team At White House

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Celebrating athletes has become a White House tradition, but some athletes haven't always gotten the recognition they deserve. President Obama took note of that when he paid tribute to the U.S. Olympic team that brought home 46 gold medals from the Summer Games in Rio. He also recalled some golden moments from summers past. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: At a celebration in the White House East Room, Obama stood beside four-time gold medal gymnast Simone Biles. He says as the father of two daughters, he's particularly encouraged by the performance of the U.S. women's team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 2016 belonged to America's women Olympians. I mean...

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ...Y'all crushed it.

HORSLEY: Obama recalled another athlete who won four gold medals - Jesse Owens. He and other black Olympians were not invited to the White House after competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Eighty years later, Obama tried to right that wrong by including families of the Berlin Olympians in this year's celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: It wasn't just Jesse. It was other African-American athletes in the middle in Nazi Germany under the gaze of Adolf Hitler that put a lie to notions of racial superiority - whooped them and...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...Taught them a thing or two about democracy.

HORSLEY: Obama also saluted a pair of black Olympians from 1968 - Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They were kicked off the Olympic team for raising gloved fists on the medal stand in protest of racial discrimination. Obama says while that powerful silent gesture was controversial, it made a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: It woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed.

HORSLEY: Echoes of the Smith and Carlos protest can be heard today when football players and others sit or kneel during the national anthem.

At the end of the ceremony, Olympians presented Obama with a pair of autographed surfboards. The Hawaiian-born president joked he'll have more time for surfing before it becomes an official Olympic sport in 2020. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.