USOC IN LIMBO, PART I: RIFT WITH THE IOC
Deteriorating USOC-IOC relations threaten both organizations
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The U.S. Olympic Committee nominated Chicago in the race for the 2016 Olympics determined to bring the Summer Games back to American soil for the first time since 1996 in Atlanta. Embarrassed four years ago when New York was eliminated in the second round of voting for the 2012 Games that were awarded to London, the USOC and Chicago bid leaders appeared to have left nothing to chance. They secured airtight funding, a sound infrastructure plan, the relentless enthusiasm of Mayor Richard M. Daley and -- in what many viewed to be the clincher -- an unprecedented final-hours lobbying appearance by a sitting president.
But when the International Olympic Committee's secret-ballot vote was revealed, Chicago was the first city eliminated, shocking the bid's leaders and stinging the Obama White House. The decision smacked of payback, evidence of the soured relations between the USOC and the IOC's 100-plus volunteer members, many of whom had grown resentful in recent years of the USOC's economic dominance of the Olympics and lack of engagement in the world of international sport.
"The IOC sent a really strong message to the U.S. Olympic Committee," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics. "'Join the Olympic movement or there will be no more Games in the United States.'"
In the aftermath of the emotional vote, people on both sides say the message might have been too powerful, producing the unintended consequence of pushing the United States further out of the Olympic movement than is good for anyone. After witnessing Chicago's humiliation, civic leaders in other potential U.S. host cities might think twice before making the considerable financial and emotional investment necessary to bid for an Olympics. And while views differ about how Olympic television and sponsorship revenue should be distributed, no one debates that U.S. consumers and companies bring more money into the Olympics than those from any other country and that any damage to those relationships could be costly.
Even the IOC members who participated in the Oct. 2 vote in Copenhagen seemed to sense, when the first-round ballots had been counted, that such a categorical defeat for one of the premier cities in the United States could have long-term repercussions.
Right after the vote, Donna de Varona, a 1964 Olympic gold medal winner who was a member of Chicago's bid team, said an IOC member approached her and said, "That was suicide."
"It was horrible for the Olympic movement," U.S. IOC member Anita DeFrantz said. "We knew it in the room. That's why there was the gasp. We understood it was the worst possible outcome."
Will U.S. bid again?
Several Olympic officials speculated it might be years before another U.S. city will be willing to risk the $60 million to $70 million required merely to get through a candidacy process seemingly tied more to international sport politics than the quality of a city's venues, transportation and hotels. The IOC, which consists of 106 members from around the world and includes two Americans, understands it can punish the United States by refusing to award it the Games, but it surely never expected to have difficulty luring the country's best cities into the field.
Many cities lose once, then gamely run again knowing they have a better chance of victory on their second attempt. But few in the Olympic movement expect Chicago, which most figured would advance to the final round of voting in a tight duel with eventual winner Rio de Janeiro, to muster the political and financial support to fuel another expensive run. And that raises the question: Who will bid for the United States? And when?
"Clearly, the process, the way it played out the last two times, is going to make people think twice about whether to bid," said Dan Knise, who led an unsuccessful joint effort between Washington and Baltimore to become the U.S. entrant in the race for the 2012 Summer Games. "There's always somebody trying to make a mark for itself, maybe a second-tier city that says, 'Let's take that bet, the payoff would be huge.' But I think maybe some of the world-class cities -- the New Yorks, San Franciscos and Chicagos -- don't take that bet anymore."
That's not an insignificant issue for the IOC. An even longer gap than the now-guaranteed 18 years without an Olympic Games on U.S. soil -- the last was the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City -- represents a frightful proposition for an organization that gets more than a third of its revenue from its current U.S. broadcasting deal with NBC. (Negotiations for the U.S. television rights for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, and 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro are expected to begin next spring.)
"This is not the way you deal with the United States of America," said Canadian IOC member Dick Pound, the chairman of the IOC Marketing Committee until 2001. "The U.S. needs a Games from time to time to fire up [U.S. consumers'] interest. If there are never any Games in the U.S., the interest in the Olympics will inevitably decline, and that's bad for [the United States] and really bad for the Olympic movement."