IOC Politics Killed Chicago’s Chances
COPENHAGEN, Denmark - Even the First Couple couldn't keep the USA from finishing dead last in the race for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama brought their usual charisma to help Chicago in the race won Friday by Rio de Janeiro. But they ran up against bloc voting and the lingering effects of a strained history between U.S. and international Olympic officials.
"I'm deeply disappointed and shocked about Chicago," Australian International Olympic Committee member Kevan Gosper said. "They deserved much better."
IOC voters sent Chicago away with just 18 of 94 first-round votes before handing Rio the opportunity to host the first South American Olympics.
"I hate the fact that these elegant people were here," U.S. IOC member Anita DeFrantz said of the Obamas, "and then our country got treated that way."
The result blunted any perceived "Obama effect" and left the president vulnerable to critics who in recent days questioned whether he should take time out from his usual presidential duties to pitch for his wife's hometown and the city where he launched his political career.
It also leaves U.S. Olympic officials to rethink their plan for regaining favor with their international counterparts. Four years ago, New York went out in the second round of voting for the 2012 Summer Olympics, after which the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to reformulate and fortify its international relations.
"The United States, within the Olympic movement, hasn't engaged as well as we could have for a long time," said Bob Ctvrtlik, the USOC's vice president, international. "And there's a lot of politics going on. This (host-city vote) isn't just on the merits."
Michelle Obama arrived in Copenhagen earlier this week to meet one-on-one with IOC members. The president flew in Friday morning, addressing IOC members during Chicago's final presentation and shaking members' hands during a coffee break before departing.
His message was one that plays well in international Olympic circles: That it was time for the USA to make "visitors from all around the world feel welcome."
Instead of affirmation, he got a most unwelcome and unforeseen snub.
"I actually feel really sorry," IOC member Rene Fasel of Switzerland said. "Everybody was shocked about the result. That's this kind of vote. It's more an accident. Because everybody expected Chicago and Rio in the end - everybody."
The Obamas were already well on their way home when the end came for Chicago. The Chicago bid team was watching from a room in the convention center where the vote was held.
"We're not going to put this on President Obama," Chicago 2016 chairman Pat Ryan said. "We just didn't win today. That's it."
In part, the result was a classic example of how dangerous the IOC's bloc voting can be even for a frontrunner.
"It was clear there was an effort to make sure Rio got this, and the only meaningful threat to Rio would have been Chicago, so all the friends of Rio were urged to try and make sure Chicago didn't get into that position," IOC member Dick Pound of Canada said.
That meant eliminating Chicago as early as possible by keeping the underdogs of Tokyo and Madrid alive, with members shifting votes as needed. As the voting rounds went on, Rio essentially gained all the losers' votes. The exact machinations are difficult to determine without seeing how each IOC member voted, and the vote was by secret ballot.
"I think there were a lot of people saying, if we don't get it, we'll support you, but we've got to stop Chicago," Pound said. "And that's sport politics, not anything else. It's election management. The Europeans and the Asians are much better at this than (North Americans) are."
Friday's result also was the most striking rejection yet of U.S. attempts to regain premier standing in the Olympic world.
"I don't think it's anti-American. I think maybe we still don't have the horsepower to do the politicking within the movement," Ctvrtlik said.
The efforts of Ctvrtlik and Bob Fasulo, hired as chief of international relations in 2006, have gained the USOC some ground. But Friday's event made it clear they still have a long way to go.
For example, stricter U.S. government controls instituted after 9/11 for any foreigners entering the country long have been a source of friction between U.S. Olympic officials and the IOC. That issue was raised again Friday during the question-and-answer period after Chicago's presentation.
During the presentation, USOC Chairman Larry Probst tried to address other underlying tensions, saying he wants to "create a legacy in which the USOC serves the Olympic movement as a vital and trusted partner."
In the last year, the USOC has tangled with the IOC over revenue sharing - the USOC receives 20 percent of IOC sponsorship revenues and 12.75 percent of broadcast rights fees while the other 204 national Olympic committees share the rest - and over the USOC's plans to launch a U.S. Olympic network. The IOC is concerned such a network will undercut its U.S. broadcast partner.
The revenue-sharing discussions were delayed until 2013, and the USOC put the network plans on hold.
Swiss IOC member Denis Oswald, who is on the IOC's executive board, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the USOC's revenue share.
"The colleagues who asked me, I said 'I would like you to forget about this, we will try to find a solution, and we should judge Chicago based on the quality of its bid,'" Oswald said, "but everyone has different approach, and I cannot say this has not played a role for a number of people."
Probst said that he didn't think the disputes "had an impact" on the vote.
"I met with dozens of IOC members not only in Berlin (at the track and field world championships in August) but here in Copenhagen and none of those things ever came up in discussions," he said.
Yet Oswald, asked if Friday's result was a defeat for the USOC rather than Chicago, said: "That's my impression, yes."
The USA hasn't hosted a Summer Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. It might be foolhardy to try again for 2020 since, after Rio, the IOC likely will want to rotate the Games back out of the Americas.
Not since Los Angeles lost in its bids for the 1976 and 1980 Games has the USA failed to land the Summer Olympics in two consecutive votes. Los Angeles did land the 1984 Games, which because of their unprecedented commercial success, set the IOC on a path to unimagined profitability and considerably enhanced the USA's standing in the Olympic world.
Those gains were lost over the last decade, first with the bid scandal that erupted in advance of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which revealed the excesses being showered on IOC members by bid cities.
Leadership turmoil at the USOC - the organization had six presidents and CEOs from 2000 to 2003 - further eroded its relationship with the IOC. That turnover abated for a few years but returned in the last year as Probst replaced Peter Ueberroth as chairman and Stephanie Streeter was named acting CEO after Jim Scherr resigned.
"The kind of instability shown by USOC in recent months has not helped," Oswald said. "We had been dealing with some people, and suddenly we heard one has disappeared and one was nearly fired, and you had to start with totally new people. It's also a human relationship. It's always easier to deal with people you know and have full confidence (in)."
In addition to such internal reasons, the globally unpopular policies of the Bush administration post-9/11 greatly hampered the USOC's efforts at improving international relations.
Obama's election last year was seen as an opportunity to turn the tide, because of his open-arms approach and desire to re-engage with the world.
But amid the arcane workings of the IOC, even that, it appears, can not get the USA over the hurdle.