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Olympic Games 2016 – How Chicago Lost

It was not such a surpise that Rio de Janeiro won the right to stage the 2016 Olympic Games recently. What was a shock was that Chicago was eliminated in the first round, getting less votes than Madrid and Tokyo, as well as Rio.

Various reasons were advanced for this embarrasing result for the United States. The last two Games held in the USA were not a success: Atlanta in 1996 was plagued by problems, including a bomb blast, and was felt to too commercialized with Coca-Cola being prominent throughout, and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics were rocked by scandal with allegations of bribary (or at least illegal “inducements”) to get the city selected.

There were also disputes between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), from what the IOC saw as the USOC ingoring them in various commercial ventures they arranged. These were not resolved until shortly before the selection meeting in Copenhagen. The Chicago bid committee also did not obtain the government guarantee required of every bid city until very late in the piece, after unsuccessfully seeking to have this requirement changed. None of this would have given the IOC members confidence that they would not have problems with a Chicago Olympics.

And then there was the “will he or wont he” saga about whether President Obama would attend the meeting, and when he did go, he only spent a very short time there, which some IOC members may have considered an insult.

However, I believe there was a more important issue that swung votes away from Chicago. It seems that they did not learn from the tactics of London in obtaining the 2012 Games, or did not draw the appropriate conclusions from what went on when London won its bid.

It must be remembered that the Olympic Games are the property of the IOC, and the members can determine the Olympic sites for whatever reason they want. Although politics plays a huge role in the deliberations of the IOC, it is different politics to that of countries and governments. Governments can, and do, seek to influence the selection of host cities for their own purposes, but in the end, the members decide by secret ballot.

The IOC is also not the slightest bit democratic. It is a self-perpetuating body. The members elect other members when there is a vacancy, and when elected, members can remain for life, unless they are expelled, or pressured to resign. (There is an age limit now to take part in the selection of Olympic sites, but not to remain a member).
Officially, members do not represent their countries on the IOC, but rather are delegataes of the IOC to their countries. IOC politics is important, but not necessarily world politics.

This is not to say that the IOC members do not take their role seriously, or are merely there to play power politics. It seems to me that they are generally concerned to do the best they can for world sport, and see themselves as the guardians of the principles of Olympism, which they believe is a force for good in the world.

As the IOC meeting to decide the host city of 2012 commenced, the London bid was seen as lagging behind that of Paris, which was generally acknowledged to be the best technical bid. The British Prime Minister (Tony Blair) was at the meeting for a week meeting and greeting IOC members, and celebrities such as David Beckham were in attendance also. But it is generally accepted that the turning point was the final presentation of Lord Sebastian Coe, the leader of London's bid.

After the result was known, on10th July 2005, the British Sunday newspaper “The Observer” ran a large article entitled “The day Coe won Gold” (meaning the Olympic bid). Quotes that follow are from that article.

For the final presentation, “instead of following IOC custom, in which would-be host cities detail the delights of their venues, transport systems and regeneration strategies, [the British bid team] decided to make their key theme a pledge that only a London Games in 2012 would help reconnect young people worldwide in sport.”.

The final presentation by Lord Coe “was [his] personal plea to IOC members to bravely choose London's promise to inspire young people around the globe in order to safeguard the future of the Olympics themselves. In his closing speech, Coe recalled how watching the 1968 Olympics as a schoolboy on black and white television inspired him to become an athlete, and how London would do the same in 2012.”

“My heroes were Olympians”, he said. “Today we offer London's vision of inspiration and legacy. Choose London today and you send a clear message to the youth of the world: more than ever, the Olympic Games are for you”.

“Their crucial film dramatised a Nigerian boy, a Chinese girl and a Russian girl watching a 2012 Games in London and being inspired to become top-level Olympic competitors themselves.”

It sounds a bit over the top now, but it worked. It was estimated that the speech moved 10 per cent of the members to change their vote, enough to get London home in the contest.

The key to all this, it seems to me, was that the London bid emphasised at the cruicial time how giving the Games to London would benefit the IOC, (whether you believe the rhetoric or not) and not how getting the Games would benefit London. It is questionable whether a London Games would inspire youth more than a Paris or Madrid Olympics, but London's team was the one to base its presentation on this aspect.

Some would say that the IOC is pretentious in its claims to be a force for all that is good in the world, and that its lobbying to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was overly ambitious. But the members want the Olympics to enhance the role that they see themselves having, and they are therefore able to be persuaded to vote for a city if they believe Olympics there will promote this.

In the recent selection of the host city for 2016, Rio de Janeiro was able to show that an Olympic Games there would promote the IOC ideals by taking the Olympics to a new continent, and making it more of a world-wide event. Of course, the delights of Copacabana Beach were also part of their pitch, but can it be contemplated that if Rio, with its crime problems, was in any other part of the world it would have been selected? I think not.

I did not see all of the Chicago presentation, but the part I did see was concentrating on what an Olympic Games there would do for the regeneration of Chicago, particularly the waterfront. Michelle Obama spoke of how her neighbours in Chicago would benefit from having the Olympics there, and how it would help the disadvantaged youth of the city. This is all well and good, but the part I saw, and the documents presented to the IOC, did not address how the IOC, and its ideals, would be enhanced by having the Games in Chicago. Perhaps there were no such arguments (and I certainly cannot think of any off the top of my head), but at least this should have been tackled head on, if they wanted to be the host city.

Future bid cities should keep all this in mind, if they expect to hold the Games (and if future bid cities want further suggestions from me, I am available on a consultacy!)

Peter Rule

What do you think? To comment, e-mail peterrule@netspace.net.au