Obamas Host Event at White House With an Eye Toward Chicago Olympic Bid

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Just throw him down!" yells Michelle Obama.

"Throw him down," her husband echoes sternly.

Thirteen-year-old Lakeisha Thornton plants her foot, grips the uniform of judo champion Ryan Reser, and twists her body. Reser obliges by hurling his solid frame to the blue wrestling mat, creating a satisfying thud. The first couple cheers. Camera shutters go snip snip snip. "Stars and Stripes Forever" crashes over the speakers on the South Lawn.

"He looked so big and much stronger," Thornton says afterward, "but I thought, 'I really want to flip him.' So I did."

Backers for Chicago's Olympic bid are hoping for a similar come-from-behind, mind-over-matter, rah-rah-America result when the host city for the 2016 Summer Games is selected 15 days from now. The president, of course, wants his adopted home town to beat out Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo. He'll do anything -- film four campaign-style videos, whip up an entire White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport, wield a plastic light saber against a silver-medal fencer to the strains of John Philip Sousa after the judo moment Wednesday. Everything except fly to Copenhagen to lobby the committee before its final vote Oct. 2.

Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin each made last-minute visits to the Olympic Congress. After these sales calls, London got the 2012 Summer Games and Sochi, Russia, claimed the Winter Olympiad in 2014.

"Mr. President, you need to be there," the Chicago Tribune said in an editorial Tuesday.

"If he can be persuaded to go, I think it makes a huge difference," International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound, a Canadian, told the Associated Press that same day. Dilemma No. 1,589 for the president: lose face by going and not delivering, or get blamed for losing the opportunity by staying home.

Obama sent his regrets to Denmark. He has a prior engagement. With health-care reform. Blaaah.

The next best thing: He's sending South Side native Michelle, "a more compelling superstar," as he puts it, to charm the committee. And then there's Wednesday's photo op on the South Lawn with Olympians, Paralympians, members of the Chicago 2016 bid team, and Mayor Richard Daley -- who appears, amusingly, to be a whole head shorter than both Obamas -- plus various Washington area schoolchildren, some of whom are wheelchair-bound or blind or fitted with prosthetics. Daley and others wear lapel pins that cross the American and Danish flags.

"Chicago is ready," President Obama insists, in front of a splash of ferns on the South Lawn. "The American people are ready. We want these Games. We. Want. Them." His forcefulness melts into a typical Obama rhapsody. The Olympics embody the "simple truths of our common humanity," he says, and Chicago is a city of "broad shoulders, big hearts and bold dreams." And so on. The speech is mostly cribbed from one of his Olympic bid videos.

Afterward, the South Lawn turns into a three-ring circus. There are demonstrations of judo, fencing and gymnastics. Track and field superwoman Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Paralympic gold medalist April Holmes, the self-described fastest amputee in the world, drift from ring to ring. Students from Sousa Middle School in Southeast Washington and Lake Ridge Middle School in Woodbridge watch, learn and participate. Sousa marches pour from the speakers, making the whole scene feel like a Cold War 1950s infomercial for American athletic prowess.

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