For Games, Obamas Enter the PR Vault
Chicago Backed as 2016 Olympics Site

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.

"Hey, FLOTUS!" Obama calls to his wife at one point. "You want to do gymnastics with Dominique Dawes?"

Behind a rope, reporters shift their weight from one leg to another. A TV journalist addresses her camera dramatically: "As popular as she is, there are concerns the first lady won't be able to bring home the Games."

The inauguration honeymoon is over. Favorability ratings are slipping slightly. The health-care debate has paralyzed Washington and polarized the country. Would a Chicago Olympics give Obama his groove back? Some say his presence in Copenhagen would be the trump card. Olympic historian Susan Brownell isn't so sure.

"There are some people within the IOC that actually have a negative reaction to the idea that Obama's presence could influence the bid," says Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. "They feel a little militant about maintaining independence and not wanting to give the appearance of getting swayed."

Expect the Oct. 2 vote to be very close, says Robert Livingstone, producer of, which tracks and analyzes Olympic bids. Right now, his BidIndex puts Chicago in second place behind Rio, based on a highly complex set of algorithms. Will Wednesday's event make a difference?

"I don't think it will translate into votes directly," says Livingstone, who calls Obama's efforts "the highest level of involvement of a U.S. president, probably ever. . . . But who knows -- maybe they will use it as an angle to send him to Copenhagen. If people are so concerned with health care, this event lets them say, 'Hey, we've got this other issue.' And maybe it translates into health care, since it's all about physical fitness."

The South Lawn event concludes with a less rigorous challenge, as a White House intern and a boy in a wheelchair thwack each other with foam sabers.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company