First Lady Leads Chicago's Failed Olympic Bid in Style

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

COPENHAGEN, Oct. 2 -- Before first lady Michelle Obama set off for this Danish capital to lead the charge for Chicago's valiant -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- bid for the 2016 Olympics, she joked that the last-minute lobbying effort would be "a battle." "We're going to win," Obama said. "Take no prisoners."

At a G-20 dinner in Pittsburgh, she teased Brazil's first lady, Marisa Leticia da Silva, that when the time came for the last-ditch arguments for the Olympic and Paralympic Games coming to Chicago -- over competitors Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid -- the "gloves are off."

Back in September, that all was just good-natured exaggeration -- high-level, lighthearted trash talk. But when Obama took the microphone Friday morning in front of more than 100 members of the International Olympic Committee, at a convention center here, she went straight for the emotional jugular. She did not try to sell the city of her birth based on the location of its sports venues, the logistics of transportation, amenities available for the athletes or even the long list of designer boutiques on the Magnificent Mile. She left all that -- including a discussion of Chicago's excellent shopping opportunities -- to the other members of the delegation who came with her to sell the city to the IOC.

Instead, with her voice at times cracking, Obama told the IOC her personal story: She is a daughter who shared a love for the Games with her father, who has died.

But all the passion in her voice, and in her manner, wasn't enough to sway the members of the IOC, who awarded the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio -- a city that tugged at the heart in a different way. No country in South America has ever hosted the Olympics. And Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made sure the IOC didn't forget the omission.

"This bid is not just ours," he said during his late-morning presentation. "It's South America's bid."

The final death-match competition for the 2016 Olympics came down to emotional one-upmanship. Who could share the most moving story? Which country could strike at the core of the Olympic ideal about one big, happy world in friendly and uplifting sportsmanship? The first lady did not bring home a victory, but she was her team's most valuable player.

"I had the privilege of being with Mrs. Obama for a day and a half and she was incredibly effective," says USOC International Vice President Bob Ctvrtlik, a former Olympian. "She was truly elegant, articulate and persuasive. The emotions I saw in those meetings were not conjured up."

Obama has often talked about how close she was to her father, Fraser Robinson, but her speech before the IOC was perhaps the most public and intimate description of that relationship. She reminisced about his passion for sports and how it served as their bond. "Sports were a gift I shared with my dad -- especially the Olympic Games. Some of my best memories are sitting on my dad's lap, cheering on Olga and Nadia, Carl Lewis and others for their brilliance and perfection."

Obama described Robinson's unwillingness to give in to the effects of multiple sclerosis, of which he received a diagnosis in his 30s, never allowing the debilitating disease to dampen his enthusiasm for athletics or lessen his desire to pass on his love for it to his two children.

"He taught me how to throw a ball and a mean right hook better than any boy in my neighborhood," Obama said. "But more importantly, my dad taught us the fundamental rules of the game, rules that continue to guide our lives today: to engage with honor, with dignity and fair play."

"My dad was my hero," Obama said, her voice breaking slightly.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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