By Michael A. Fletcher and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 3, 2009
From the beginning, it was a gamble.
When President Obama decided to lend the prestige of his office and his charisma to Chicago's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the hope was that a personal appeal from the leader of the United States would guarantee success for his adopted home town.
It didn't work. Olympic officials swiftly rejected Chicago's bid Friday, leaving Obama disappointed and a bit philosophical as he explained why his effort fell flat.
"You can play a great game and still not win," Obama told reporters at the White House shortly after returning from Denmark, where he had schmoozed with officials of the International Olympic Committee. "Although I wish that we had come back with better news from Copenhagen, I could not be prouder."
Obama also congratulated Brazil for becoming the first South American country to host the Olympics. He said he told Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that "our athletes will see him on the field of competition in 2016."
Even before Obama's helicopter lifted off from the South Lawn, the start of his whirlwind trip to the Danish capital, Republicans were calling the effort a distraction for a president already dealing with a health-care reform bill, job losses in the economy, Iran's nuclear ambitions and a fateful decision about the U.S. military's mission in Afghanistan.
The IOC's quick dismissal of Chicago only intensified the criticism.
"President Obama fails to get the Olympics while unemployment goes to 9.8% Iran continues nuclear program," former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tweeted. "America needs focused leadership."
GOP political consultant Mark McKinnon called Obama's trip "high-risk, low-reward." He added: "I suspect most Americans would prefer Obama in the role of president rather than the head of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce."
IOC President Jacques Rogge has said that heads of state are not required to attend the committee's meeting, but recent history shows that their participation can be decisive in landing Olympic Games.
Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair successfully lobbied members on behalf of London's bid for the 2012 Summer Games in 2005 in Singapore. Two years later, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin helped land the 2014 Winter Games for the city of Sochi.
Getting the message were the heads of state of the other three finalists -- Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro -- all of whom made personal pitches in Copenhagen.
"I think Americans want a president who is going to fight for their country," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who argued that Obama would suffer no significant fallout because of Chicago's defeat. "It is not a process that he controls. It is not a process that the United States controls."
Once the IOC announced that Chicago was out, White House advisers -- many of them Chicago natives, with a personal stake in the bid -- rushed into the recesses of the West Wing to digest the result, and then emerged, looking glum, to comment.
"We wanted Chicago to get this. We wanted the U.S. to host the Olympics," senior adviser David Axelrod said on CNN. "The president made a very strong appeal, and it didn't work out, but it was well worth the effort."
Axelrod blamed the internal machinations of the IOC for the rejection. "I think there are politics everywhere, and there were politics inside that room," he said.
Obama had originally sent his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, to Copenhagen to head a delegation that included luminaries such as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, entertainment magnate Oprah Winfrey, and Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. During a reception there, Michelle Obama compared the Olympics vote to the Iowa caucuses, not the first time an Obama administration official had made such a connection.
But it turned out that politics within the IOC, whose 100-plus members include industrialists, former athletes, counts, princesses and a grand duke, proved even more inscrutable than Iowa's.
Former IOC member Kai Holm speculated that the brevity of Obama's appearance -- he was in Denmark for only five hours -- may have counted against him. The short stopover was "too business-like," Holm told the Associated Press. "It can be that some IOC members see it as a lack of respect."
Others speculated that Asian voters may have voted as a bloc for Tokyo in the first round, dooming Chicago's chances.
As the president flew home, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he did not know enough about the voting to hazard a guess about what happened. But, he added, he was sure the president would have taken fire for Chicago's loss even if Obama decided not to publicly back the effort.
"If he hadn't come, I'm sure people would say, 'I can't believe he didn't go and push the American bid for the Olympics; we're out of the first round because the president didn't -- you know,' " he said. "Look, if you can't take that sort of just base level of gnat-like criticism, then it's probably the wrong gig."