Personalities, Not Plans, Are Focus in Final Days Before Friday's IOC Vote on 2016 Games

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

The talk surrounding Chicago's campaign for the 2016 Summer Games in recent weeks was over whether President Obama would lobby personally for the bid, not the specifics of the city's compact, lakefront venue plan.

As the International Olympic Committee's vote Friday in Copenhagen approaches, the technical strengths and weaknesses of the competing cities -- Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo -- have been all but lost in a sea of whiz-bang announcements, seemingly capped by the news Monday that Obama would indeed join Chicago's star-studded delegation.

The contending cities seem to sense Friday's secret ballot of the IOC's 106 members, who include five princes, two princesses, a count, grand duke and a mix of other high-profile figures and athletes, will hinge more on intangible elements than on which city has the best transportation plan or most efficiently designed Olympic stadium.

"We think our bid has been well-received by the IOC and IOC members," Chicago's bid president Patrick G. Ryan said during a recent telephone interview. "That doesn't mean we'll get the majority of votes. I do think they realize Chicago is a great city with a great bid; whether they vote for us is something else."

In the final days of their campaigns, cities that have spent millions of dollars on elaborate construction plans waste little time touting the quality of their hotels or plans for traffic control. They bring out politicians and celebrities, trying to show the support and power behind their bids. They put on flashy presentations and carve out time for plenty of handshakes and eye contact in the hope of stealing hearts and accruing last-minute votes.

"It's the usual frenzy in the last two weeks," Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said. "It's like the old Kremlin Wall, eyeing who's standing next to whom; what does that raised eyebrow mean? It's pretty hectic. In recent history, the elections have been so close, the cities are afraid the slightest miscue might cost them the election."

In the wake of a bribery scandal that caused the IOC to revamp its selection process 10 years ago, IOC members are no longer allowed to visit the bidding cities. Each instead receives a dense technical report on all of the bids, which seems decidedly overshadowed by the big-picture geopolitical issues in play when the election take place, and what occurs in hotel ballrooms and on red carpets in the days leading up to the vote.

"If it's anything like U.S. Congress, they're not going to read it anyway," Olympic historian Bill Mallon said. "If that's the case, it really is very much, 'Hey, the prime minister of Japan came; obviously they really want the Games, and the U.S. sent [Obama senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett -- who the hell is that?' It matters a lot" that President Obama decided to attend.

Added Mallon: "The IOC sees itself in a more hallowed position than U.S. people do. . . . The IOC thinks heads of state should come and, if not beg, at least plead their case that their city should host the Olympic Games. If heads of state don't do that now, I think the IOC is a little bit offended."

Before the Obama announcement, Chicago had said Jarrett, first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey would campaign in Copenhagen with other dignitaries; Rio is sending President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, soccer legend Pele and Olympic swimmer Cesar Cielo. Tokyo has Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyamaa, and two members of the royal family. Madrid will roll out King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.

Does it really matter? London upset heavily favored Paris for the 2012 Summer Games after then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, showed up in Singapore, chatting up IOC members for hours.

"I'm convinced London would not have won if Tony and Cherie Blair had not gone out to Singapore," Pound said.

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