First Lady's Olympian Effort Falls Short
But Her Impassioned Appeal Earns Plaudits

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.

"If he could have witnessed athletes who compete and excel and prove that nothing is more powerful than the human spirit," she said, "I know it would have restored in him the same sense of unbridled possibility that he instilled in me."

Obama's pitch before the IOC was an extension of the message that she has sought to send in Washington -- the idea of breaking down barriers and encouraging children, especially disadvantaged ones, to set their sights high. She emphasized the lasting effect the Games would have on kids, particularly those who are growing up as she did, on the South Side of Chicago, feeling alienated from the rarified world of the powerful and influential.

Obama addressed the IOC members wearing a shimmering chartreuse dress with an oversize bow at the waist and a matching short-sleeve cardigan. The rest of the delegation, including the women, was dressed in the group's team uniform: dark suits with powder blue shirts. The first lady stood out like a star in front of a backup chorus.

President Obama, who initially was not expected to travel here, spoke last. He, too, made his pitch personal, talking about the aspects of Chicago that attracted him more than 25 years ago -- the city's diverse cultures, the Midwestern welcoming spirit. But the first lady launched the most powerful emotional strikes.

"I found Michelle Obama brilliant. She was emotional, her story really hit home -- the openness about her father and the strength of the Paralympic Games," said Erwin Roth, who has been involved with the Olympics since Lake Placid in 1980 and has written a history of the Games.

The first lady arrived here Wednesday afternoon and after a brief stop at the U.S. Embassy began meeting with members of the IOC to press the flesh and lobby for her home town. She brought a tremendous amount of Chicago star power with her, including former Olympians Michael Johnson and Nadia Comaneci, as well as her White House confidantes -- and fellow Chicagoans -- Valerie Jarrett and Susan Sher. The delegation also included a host of the city's formidable business leaders, one tireless mayor and a talk-show host known around the world.

The first lady gave the bid her all, attending the full roster of IOC programming, including Thursday evening's Opening Ceremony. She arrived in a pumpkin-colored cocktail dress with a full skirt and open back and sat alongside Oprah Winfrey and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and watched as the Danish did their best to dazzle an audience of dignitaries with ballet, opera, modern dance and a celebration of youth.

Afterward, there were more opportunities to air kiss and backslap over cocktails and a strolling supper with a Frank Sinatra tune in the background. The first lady didn't pull an all-nighter, but it was more than a 12-hour day.

For a time, it seemed as though Winfrey might steal the first lady's thunder. Local residents witnessed crowds keeping vigil wherever there might be an opportunity to catch sight of the famous talker. Just as many guests at the Opening Ceremony in the Opera House paused to pay their respects to Winfrey as stopped to greet Obama.

In the end, the failed bid notwithstanding, not even the leader of the free world managed to outshine the first lady. Officials who met with her were impressed, particularly with her ability to quickly shift gears as she chatted with everyone from up-and-coming athletes to heads of state.

Daley, who was the first lady's boss during her days in Chicago, said he hadn't been briefed on precisely what she would say, nor did he have any idea that she would speak at length about her father. "It all came from the heart," he said. "I think Chicago is always about family and immigrants and people coming to Chicago for a better way of life. To tell that story, it's not just about words. You have to identify with people and that's why it's very emotional."

The IOC meetings here have been an unpredictable blend of emotion wrapped in bureaucracy, protocol and eccentricity. Of the 106 IOC members, 97 are eligible to vote. They convene in a large auditorium evoking a miniature United Nations, with headsets offering simultaneous translation. The difference is that they spend their time asking questions about doping and whether the Olympic marksmen will have overnight accommodations at their venue. They are also fond of 40-minute coffee breaks.

The delegations are shameless, too. One member of the Rio de Janeiro team observed that having the 2016 Olympics in Brazil would be a lovely way to celebrate his 100th birthday. Madrid's Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the IOC, let it be known that he is 89 years old and this could be the last opportunity for him to see the Olympics in his country.

After each presentation, IOC President Jacques Rogge gave the delegation a "diploma," which would seem to be proof that each city -- after spending three years or longer learning the ins and outs of Olympic politics to get to the finals -- has at last graduated. The certificate was approximately the size of a large traffic sign and came framed. The only word legible from a distance was "THANKS." President Obama accepted the diploma on behalf of Chicago2016.

The first lady could just as easily have received a gold star.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company