Why Chicago Lost The Olympics

Why Chicago Failed To Win The Olympics
by Howard Berkes

Enlarge Morry Gash/APChicago 2016 supporters react as they learn the city has lost its bid to host the Olympics.

Morry Gash/APChicago 2016 supporters react as they learn the city has lost its bid to host the Olympics.
text sizeAAAOctober 3, 2009
Actually, it's not Chicago's fault. Nothing more could have been done. Nothing legal at least.

Olympic insiders praise the city's 2016 Olympic bid as completely solid. The plan was sound. The anticipated venues were stunning and compact. The ambitious funding projections were reasonable, given the kind of corporate and American television revenue an American Olympics can generate.

Blame politics unusual.

Chicagoans may not like to admit it, but there's no American city with a better track record of working a room, peddling influence, counting votes, buying loyalty, playing hardball and cultivating corruption.

So, neither the practiced politicos in Chicago nor in the White House could wine and dine, glad-hand, lobby or perform the most basic function of any campaign: count potential votes. They couldn't poll and then shift strategy based on the polling results. They could only guess at who would vote which way, and even then, there was very little they could do about it.

All that worked wonderfully in the past for cities so desperate to host the Olympics that they plied the votes of members of the International Olympic Committee with college scholarships for the kids, all-expenses-paid vacations, lucrative real estate deals, luxury bathroom fixtures, surgical procedures, laptop computers, skis and skiwear, rent-free housing, shotguns and more. To be fair, that culture of Olympic corruption was due as much to the greedy demands of IOC members as it was to the complicit desperation of bidding cities.

It was a culture that played to the strengths of a bidding city like Chicago. Imagine the results if the gold medalist for patronage and political corruption could have applied its considerable skills to that atmosphere.

It would have been politics as usual for Chicago.

The scandalous behavior of IOC members and Salt Lake City Olympic bidders in the 1990s triggered reform that effectively banned the gifts and favors. The reform effort also made it difficult to apply legitimate politicking to the bidding process. This not only hogtied the savvy political operatives in Chicago, it also minimized the role of President Obama, the Olympic bidder-in-chief.

The tough bidding rules established after the Salt Lake City scandal made it impossible to conduct even the most fundamental political campaign. IOC members are not permitted to visit bidding cities and even meet with the bidders, except under very limited and controlled circumstances.

So, neither the practiced politicos in Chicago nor in the White House could wine and dine, glad-hand, lobby or perform the most basic function of any campaign: count potential votes. They couldn't poll and then shift strategy based on the polling results. They could only guess at who would vote which way, and even then, there was very little they could do about it.

Those who were certain that the president went to Copenhagen because the result was predetermined know nothing about Olympic politics and IOC members. The balloting for host cities is secret, and IOC members are famous for not talking about their votes, before or after the voting. Trusting those who do talk is risky because there's no accountability in a secret vote.

Chicago also suffered from Olympic politics completely beyond the control of its bidders. Rio de Janeiro had the strong emotional appeal of finally staging an Olympics in South America. It's a new market for what the IOC likes to refer to as "Olympism," which includes the spreading of Olympic ideals and tapping new corporate and television revenues.

Also, the U.S. Olympic Committee seemed to go out of its way to put obstacles in Chicago's path. IOC members are not generally fond of the United States because (choose one or select all):

1. American corporate sponsorships and television contracts are the single-biggest source of Olympic funding. This is viewed by some as Olympic imperialism.

2. The U.S. is viewed as an arrogant and dominating world power generally.

3. The Olympic bribery scandal involved an American bid and resulted in humiliating hearings in the U.S. Congress (in which then-IOC-President Juan Antonio Samaranch was forced to empty his pockets at a metal detector) and a failed but embarrassing prosecution by the Justice Department.

The U.S. Olympic Committee helped fan any lingering anti-American flames by announcing a U.S. Olympic television network, despite the IOC's insistence that more discussion and negotiation was necessary first. A truce helped ease simmering resentment over the USOC share of Olympic revenues, but that came late in the bidding process. And the USOC's ongoing senior leadership crises and changes left the group unprepared to do the networking and bid marshalling that IOC members expect.

Finally, Chicago politicians defied their reputations for political acumen by failing to guarantee Olympic funding until a few weeks before the voting. This is the most basic element of Olympic bidding: Don't leave the IOC on the hook if you don't raise enough money to pay all the Olympic bills. The failure to provide the guarantee earlier could have been viewed as classic American arrogance, as in "we like to do things our way."

Chicago and President Obama were only able to muster 18 of 94 votes. That's a pathetic 19 percent, proving the bidding for the 2016 Olympics was anything but politics as usual.

NPR's Howard Berkes has covered six Olympic Games and two Olympic bids, including the Salt Lake City Olympic scandal.

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Recent FirstOldest FirstMost RecommendedJoe Nathan (Joe_the_inventor) wrote:


You said "The airwaves have been catering more and more to the republicans and conservatives for 2 decades now." Really?????
If you mean radio, you might be right, er, I mean left. But if you think TV, print, movies, etc are leaning left you are seriously deluded. Sources?
Monday, October 05, 2009 5:59:03 PM

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Ringland Murray (Ringland) wrote:

Personally, I like to see the Olympics spread around generously to other host countries. It just seems more international that way.

I'd also like to see them quit staggering summer and winter games. To me, it was a lot more special when you got them only every 4 years.
Monday, October 05, 2009 5:52:27 PM

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Mike Cork (TshirtZ) wrote:

Regardless of where they have it, there is going to be crime. There is going to be everything that you don't want to see when your home country is hosting the Olympics. The press will have 1000 reasons why the US did not win the bid (depending on which news station you are watching). It would have been great to have in Chicago. http://www.designerteez.com>TshirtZ
Monday, October 05, 2009 5:15:02 PM

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Tim B (IBelieve) wrote:

There have been independent groups that have critiqued Fox cable programs, and they are far from being balanced. Most of the hosts cut off guests when they began to make any major dent in the hosts logic or premise. Bill O'Reilley has asked that guests microphones be turned off when they began to gain the upper hand in an argument. The other programs at times use weaker opposing guests that can't make strong arguments. Lightweights. The repeatedly fail to have on guests that can directly challenge their assertions.

They also like to reinforce eath other so there are recurrent themes from one show to the next. MSNBC has begun to copy that format with some of its shows to counter Fox news.

To be trully fair and balanced, guests should not be cut off before being allowed to make their point, the guests should not be there to reinforce the view of the host, and the guest should not be intimidated, which occurs also.

As far as the main stream media leaning left, that has been a false accusation by the right for a decade to throw people off. The airwaves have been catering more and more to the republicans and conservatives for 2 decades now.
Monday, October 05, 2009 5:03:40 PM

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Santa Rita Hunter (Santaritahunter) wrote:

Chicago is not particularly a violent place when compared with Rio. Phoenix is a perfectly rotten place for a summer olympics. I can't see anyone running a marathon there in the first week of August with temperatures in excess of 105F.

Chicagoans dodged a bullet on this one. Being an Olympic Host City means that your taxpayers spend a whole lot of money building stuff that will get used once and never again, than they realize in return as revenue. You want something that'd good for Chicago, build a wind farm out on that lake. Or maybe just get a studio with some talent (unlike the last bunch of clowns) to redux The Dresden Files along the lines of 24: 1 novel per season.
Monday, October 05, 2009 4:44:02 PM

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Jeffrey Gross (JeffinSA) wrote:

This is less time for finding fault and more time for being happy that the games will come to South America for the first time. I see that as progress. The games going to Brazil is a good thing. Brazil is an emerging country that is excited about the chance the IOC gave to them. As with all competition, there is a winner and there are losers. Good competators embrace the winner for a performance well done. Let's celebrate with our friends from Brazil
Monday, October 05, 2009 4:38:34 PM

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D A (d_man1230) wrote:

@Emel...that's funny you say that because I was thinking the same thing about Chicago...why internationally display one of our most crime-ridden cities to the world. Next city up for a bid will be Detroit! I mean, put up Denver or Phoenix (I'm not being biased, I'm from Houston and wouldn't reccomend us either!)
Monday, October 05, 2009 4:07:12 PM

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Emel Alameda (NPRNPR) wrote:

The sad thing is the corruption works both ways. When I lived in Atlanta and they won I was amazed. It turned out the city had falsified crime records and made things look rosy when in fact the city was rife with crime. I think Chicago lost because they are in the news with nothing but crime.
Monday, October 05, 2009 3:44:43 PM

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D A (d_man1230) wrote:

@Joe Nathan...thanks for the explanation. I didn't quite see how that was going to pan out, whether or not it would all be in climate-controlled indoors. That would be one heck of a venue! I mean going from Bejing to Chicago probably wouldn't really have been that big a difference. But Rio deJaneiro should be a stark contrast to the smoggy city that hosted the Olympics last. I can't remember how Sydney looked when they had it a while back. But they're much further South than Rio...I think, if my memory serves me correctly.
Monday, October 05, 2009 3:19:23 PM

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D A (d_man1230) wrote:

@Tim B...I said nothing about both of those OPINION talk show hosts being balanced. You stated that Beck, "stirred up hatred". He is biased and I like that because so is the so-called "mainstream" media and I can get a good story by listening to all sides. Now if you want to talk about Fox not being fair, I can't agree with that. Most everything they discuss has a panel with equal amounts of time that get to say their piece. In fact, a few of the panel comes from right here at NPR (Juan Williams) and are proud, card carrying liberals!
Monday, October 05, 2009 3:12:10 PM


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