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Chicago loses bid for 2016 Olympics

Sunday, October 4, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- Chicago seemed to have everything going for it.

It was a compact bid that kept 90 percent of the athletes within 15 minutes of their venues, and used existing or temporary venues that wouldn't burden the city with white elephants. It was a dazzling setting on picturesque Lake Michigan, a major city that doesn't have major attitude.

Best of all, it had government support all the way up to the White House. So much so that President Barack Obama found time in his busy schedule to come to Copenhagen to lobby in person for the 2016 Olympics -- flying overnight, no less.

"This was," acting U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Stephanie Streeter said, "the strongest bid we've had. Ever."

And yet Chicago was gone after the first round Friday, a worse showing than New York's bid for the 2012 Games four years ago. Even Tokyo, whose bid barely generated any mention in the days before the vote, beat the Americans.

Stunned and shocked were the words heard most often, from IOC members and the Chicago contingent.

"Either it was tactical voting, or a lot of people decided not to vote for Chicago whatever happened," IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg said. "Nobody knows, but everybody is in a state of shock. Nobody believes it. I'm very sorry about it. We will have to spend some time evaluating what happened."

As will the Americans.

Sure, a large part of their defeat was the appeal of eventual winner Rio de Janeiro. The Olympics never have been in South America, and the Brazilians were incredibly passionate and enthusiastic in their appeals for the games.

But there was also an undeniable backlash against any number of things American, from hassling visitors at the borders to money squabbles -- even that quickie visit by the president.

"They realize that apparently they have a problem," said Denis Oswald, a member of the International Olympic Committee's executive board. "We want them to be fully part of the family and they probably have to take some steps."

Some people, though, just don't like the way Americans do things.

One IOC member, Syed Shahid Ali of Pakistan, told Obama that foreigners "can go through a rather harrowing experience" getting into the United States and asked how he intended to deal with that when thousands of people come for the 2016 games.

Obama replied that "America, at its best, is open to the world," and the presentation ended with no further questions.

"This is an easy way for countries to express resentment toward us, as a superpower, without suffering any consequences, like having their foreign aid cut off or their weapons programs cut off," said Doug Logan, CEO of USA Track and Field. "It's an easy way for them to express a great amount of displeasure."

There are other geopolitical factors at play, too. Rio repeatedly referred to the "imbalance" of the games being held -- often -- in North America, Europe and Asia, yet never in South America, and it was tough for IOC members to ignore. There also might have been some members who tossed their votes to Tokyo in the first round, assuming Chicago would get through and not wanting the Japanese to be horribly embarrassed.

"The whole thing doesn't make sense other than there has been a stupid bloc vote," senior Australian member Kevan Gosper said. "To have the president of the United States and his wife personally appear, then this should happen in the first round, is awful and totally undeserving."

Even Obama's presence may have hurt with a few IOC members. While many rushed to meet the president and the first lady after they left the session hall, not everyone was so enthralled. He was in town only five hours, then hurried back to Washington.

"It can be that some IOC members see it as a lack of respect," said Kai Holm, a former IOC member from Denmark.

But the Americans -- the USOC, at least -- also have to shoulder some of the blame.

A testy relationship between the IOC and USOC is almost ingrained. The IOC needs the United States -- its companies and broadcasters provide the largest share of their revenue -- and resents that it does. That the USOC spent many years acting as if it was above the rest of the group only worsened things.

When the vote-buying scandal in Salt Lake City's winning campaign for the 2002 Winter Games broke, IOC members took the brunt of the criticism -- then-president Juan Antonio Samaranch was even called before Congress -- and the USOC underwent a period of upheaval that was felt domestically and internationally.

The USOC has done a lot of work, particularly in the last four years, to re-engage internationally, letting the IOC know it wants to be interested partners, not overseers. But some bad feelings linger, magnifying any missteps. Other Olympic committees have explored the possibility of starting their own TV networks, yet it threatened to derail the Chicago bid when the USOC announced plans this year. Not to mention squandering any goodwill the USOC had built up when chairman Larry Probst and Streeter managed to work out a compromise on the long-simmering revenue sharing dispute earlier.

And after years of relatively stable leadership, the USOC had a messy transition when Jim Scherr, a former Olympic wrestler who was well-liked in the movement, was dumped in March and replaced by Streeter.

"I think the revenue-sharing issue not being completely resolved was a factor," Scherr said. "Also, the desire for the IOC to go to South America and the fact that Rio has been in the process for four more years than Chicago was. They had a leg up from Day One."

And now they have the games. And the Americans are looking for answers.

"It's a strong bid," said Bob Ctvrtlik, a former IOC member who is now the USOC's vice chair of international relations. "If you went around and asked the IOC members, I think they'd say it's a strong bid, too."

If only that was all that mattered in the game of Olympic politics.

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