Chicago's Not Their Kind of Town
Rio de Janeiro Awarded 2016 Olympics as Obama's Endorsement Fails to Sway IOC

By Robin Givhan and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 3, 2009

COPENHAGEN, Oct. 2 -- Unswayed by a lobbying effort by President Obama, the International Olympic Committee decided to send the Games to South America for the first time, inspiring shouts of joy on Rio de Janeiro's beaches and leaving supporters in Chicago shocked and disappointed.

The IOC awarded the 2016 Summer Games to Rio de Janeiro more than an hour after unceremoniously booting Chicago out of the four-city fight for the Games in the first round of secret-ballot voting. Though many present at the vote said Obama's appearance was overwhelmingly well-received, it was not the deal-clincher for his home city some anticipated. Chicago received just 18 of 94 first-round votes, news that silenced revelers who had gathered at Chicago's Daley Plaza and left bid leaders in tears.

Chicago's swift rejection was a public embarrassment for Obama, who earlier this week changed course and decided to travel to the Danish capital to lend his personal popularity and the prestige of his office to his adopted home town's effort. He was the first U.S. president to lobby the Olympic committee. The outcome left Obama disappointed, and he was subdued when he returned to the White House after his whirlwind trip.

"I believe it is always a worthwhile endeavor to promote and boost the United States of America and invite the world to see what we're all about," he told reporters in the Rose Garden.

Facing two wars, a teetering economy and a raging health care debate, Obama came under sharp criticism from Republican leaders for immersing himself in Chicago's effort.

"Our country needs the president's undivided attention on the urgent issues facing American families today: rising unemployment, soaring health care costs, winning the war in Afghanistan and dealing with Iran's nuclear threat," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said.

While Obama's presence dominated the domestic political discussion, those familiar with the shrouded, often inscrutable politics of the International Olympic Committee said the decision reflected not on Obama's stature but rather on the reputation and perception of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Members of the IOC have called the USOC's share of Olympic television and sponsorship revenue "immoral," and relations between the bodies were further enflamed recently when the USOC announced plans for an independent television deal, which was scuttled in the contentious aftermath.

IOC members "don't hate America, they hate the USOC, and with good reason," said Dick Ebersol, who controls the Olympic operation for NBC, the biggest Olympic rights holder. "Congress doesn't need to do any new reform. The USOC just needs new leadership."

Obama, who arrived here early Friday, spent just five hours in the Danish capital and was en route to Washington on Air Force One with first lady Michelle Obama, who had also stumped for the bid, when the decision was announced.

"I'm not shocked that we lost," said Chicago sports marketer Jeff Bail, who stood with other distraught residents at Daley Plaza, where giant screens showed the announcement live. "I'm absolutely, completely shocked that we lost in the first round."

Tokyo fell out in the second round with 20 votes and Madrid was crushed by Rio by a 66-to-32 vote in the final round.

"All the IOC [doesn't] consider this a defeat of the president of the United States of America," said Mario Pescante, an IOC member from Italy. "We appreciate the courage of the president in coming."

The United States has now suffered two straight losses in Summer Olympic selections. In the race for the 2012 Summer Games, New York finished fourth, but its bid had been damaged when its plans for a $1 billion Olympic stadium collapsed a month before the vote. London prevailed in the race for those Games. The United States last held a Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996.

Willi Kaltschmitt, an IOC member from Guatemala, said he was surprised to see Chicago eliminated so early after the "great support" from Obama.

"Chicago was not supposed to go out in the first round," he said. "We all agreed it was among the [top] two bid cities competing. . . . The USOC will want to figure out what really happened."

Ebersol and USOC International Vice President Bob Ctvrtlik speculated that the USOC's failure to connect with the Olympic world at large hurt the bid. The USOC recently changed its president and chief executive, and the United States has not had a seat on the IOC's executive board for years.

"The U.S. Olympic movement hasn't engaged with the IOC in a long time," Ctvrtlik said. "I don't think it's anti-American, but we still don't have the horsepower to do the politicizing."

Political muscle is critical in the first round of Olympic votes, since some members will vote for cities they assume will be eliminated eventually to stave off an embarrassing first-round showing for those cities. Despite Rio's dominant victory in the final round, it claimed only 26 votes in the first round -- fewer than Madrid, which had the support of beloved former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, and earned 28. Tokyo got 22.

"I know in the U.S. it's going to be all, 'Barack Obama failed,' but he and Michelle were the highlight," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, who attended this week's session. "What people in America might not realize is that IOC politics are much bigger than the United States."

Rio, which will host the soccer World Cup in 2014, recently had to cancel a World Cup swimming event because of lack of funding, and it will face the challenges pointed out by the IOC's evaluation team in a report released a month ago: crime, a sprawling venue plan and not enough hotel rooms in the city center. But Rio trotted out a financial expert to try to allay fears that the city could not stage such an event and put on a presentation that seemed to dazzle more than Chicago's.

Bid leaders showcased the virtual cheerleading of Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and promoted Rio's bid with as much passion as the Obamas.

More than 30,000 people gathered on Rio's iconic Copacabana Beach to watch the results on giant televisions. Draft beer flowed from stands on the famous Calcadão walkway along the sand. Vendors wove through the crowd selling cotton candy, biscuits and sunglasses. When the final decision came, silvery confetti sprayed out into the crowd, and people hugged, danced, sang and wept.

"It is the prettiest place in the world," said Cristiano Brettas, a 32-year-old who had taken the day off from his job at Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, to come to the event with his 1-month-old daughter Stephanie. "The Olympics will create employment, cause investment in the area of security, which we need, and will show the world the happiness the people of Rio will demonstrate when we put on an event like this one."

In his speech to the IOC, the first such address by a sitting U.S. president, Obama had emphasized Chicago's diversity and America's desire to bring the world together.

Obama, who sat next to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley with the other members of Chicago's bid team before and after his address, listened intently to questions posed by IOC members after he spoke. He even stepped in to respond to an IOC member from Pakistan, who expressed concern about the "harrowing" process of getting into the United States for Olympic visitors.

"One of the legacies I want to see coming out of" the Games, Obama said, "is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world." He added, "We are putting the full force of the White House and State Department to make sure that not only is this a successful Games, but that visitors from all around the world feel welcome and will come away with a sense of the incredible diversity of the American people."

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher in Washington, Peter Slevin and Kari Lyderson in Chicago and special correspondent Seth Kugel in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this story.

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