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Hail to the Booster in Chief

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

He may have bigger challenges now and in years to come, but nothing will endear Barack Obama to some of us more than his decision to take a quick transatlantic round trip to lobby the International Olympic Committee on behalf of Chicago's bid to be the host city of the 2016 Summer Games.

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I'm astonished that some carping critics have faulted Obama for making the 18-hour excursion to Copenhagen to schmooze the IOC members, who on Friday will decide among Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago. Tip O'Neill taught a previous generation that all politics is local, and this is the best favor the president could possibly do for his adopted home town.

I have to believe that Obama regards this as no sacrifice. It's been almost a year since he last deployed his smarts and charm in a contest in which votes will be counted and a clear winner will emerge. Campaigners like to campaign, and this is a fair fight.

Chicago has the edge on Tokyo, which already has hosted the Olympics. As for Madrid, the 2012 games will be in London, and there's no good reason Europe should have the honors twice in a row. But Rio has a strong case, not just because of its beauty and the growing economic clout of Brazil but also because South America has never had the Olympics.

The only Olympics insider I know (my oldest son, George, who was a staff member at the Los Angeles Games) told me Sunday, before Obama agreed to make the trip, that the scuttlebutt favored Rio's bid, in part on the equity argument and in part because the Brazilian president was committed to lobbying in Copenhagen.

Now, no one will have a more powerful delegation on the scene than Chicago: the president, first lady Michelle Obama, two Illinois-based Cabinet members, Obama's chief campaign fundraiser -- and Oprah Winfrey.

They will point out that the Summer Olympics have not been in the United States since the Atlanta Games in 1996. I was lucky enough to get to that spectacle and, 12 years earlier, to Los Angeles. For a one-time high school and college hurdler, the track meets and other competitions were irresistible.

What I didn't know before those experiences was that the Olympic audience is as much of an attraction as the athletes. People gather from all over the globe, and they come not to show each other up but to revel in a shared experience, the likes of which I've never known elsewhere.

I'd love for my home town of Chicago and its good people, many of whom have been waiting many decades for the Cubs to break through, to learn what it means to be part of the Olympics.

And equally, I'd love for the world to get to know Chicago -- with its magnificent lakefront, its healthy, diverse neighborhoods and its mayor, Richard Daley, who is as smart and accomplished a builder of urban success as anyone in the world.

In 1893, Chicago played host to the World's Columbian Exposition, which for decades was the model for all other world's fairs. The main building of that event remains in place, now the Museum of Science and Industry, a treat for children and adults alike.

With help from Obama, Chicago can do as much or more for this century. Keep your fingers crossed.


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