Michael Phelps is focused only on
gold medals [GALLO/GETTY]

Abby Wambach would love for the U.S. women's football team to help create a spirit of unity at the Beijing Olympics.

But the striker is also aware that politics and protests are hogging the headlines as the games approach.

"We are athletes, and we're going there to play a sport,'' she said.

"We hope to make change. We hope to create an environment where we can bring the world together. But that's a lot of responsibility, to ask an athlete to go over there not only just to represent the country ... but also to have these political views.''

The high-scoring forward wasn't alone in fielding questions that had little to do with her sport.

Many athletes at the U.S. Olympic team media conference found themselves talking as much about recent protests over China's human rights record as their pursuit of a medal.

For some, it's an unwelcome burden that distracts from lifelong goals.

Others believe it's a responsibility that comes with being an Olympic-caliber athlete.

"I'm not going to use the Olympics as a platform for any of the issues I feel strongly about,'' gymnast David Durante said.

"The Olympics are about competition. It's about the athletes and bringing the world together on a stage that is very positive. I feel like it's unfortunate that these issues get brought up during the Olympics.

"It's great that awareness is being brought to such political issues, but I don't feel it's my place as an athlete to voice my opinion one way or another on any political issues at the Olympic Games.''

Torch controversy

The torch relay, which began on March 24 in Greece, has been a magnet for critics of China's policies on Tibet and Darfur.

Protesters disrupted stops in London, Paris and San Francisco, helping to make the games, which begin on August 8, among the most contentious in years.

And it has forced athletes to learn just how vocal they should be in the coming months.

"For me to really voice my opinion and get carried away, I feel like that would really be selfish because then all the attention would be on me,'' softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza said.

"I don't feel it's my place to tell China what to do. I feel more it's my place to tell people what's happening.

"It's an incredibly tough line. I have 14 teammates, and I have a whole lot more responsibilities than my personal beliefs.''

Folding

Wrestler Brad Vering, however, said he expects some athletes will feel pressured to speak out.

"Some athletes will fold like crazy and probably do things on the medal stand,'' he said.

"They'll be great athletes and mentally tough people and probably fold.''

When asked to elaborate, he said they would "do whatever someone wants them to do, whether it's wear a patch or do something crazy on the award stand that would represent something. That's just not something I'm going to do.''

Not everyone was interested in discussing political issues. Michael Phelps, who hopes to break Mark Spitz's record of seven swimming gold medals in a single Olympics, deflected such questions by instead describing how much he enjoys the games.