Amid a vast array of global crises that will severely test the new Obama administration, there may be some small comfort for the president-elect in how his election already appears to have reversed one distressing international trend: America’s diminished stature in the Olympic movement.
That “crisis” may not resonate with Americans like war, global recession or climate change do. Still, given that no international body is more conservative, corporate and, at heart, pro-American than the International Olympic Committee, the United States’ growing estrangement from the IOC has been emblematic of the nation’s larger problems abroad.
The full extent of its Olympic difficulties became evident back in 2005 when IOC voters greeted New York City’s bid for the 2012 Games like Democrats do a Ralph Nader candidacy. The city wound up spending $35 million to finish a distant fourth behind London, Paris and Madrid. Even more worrisome was how Olympic insiders hinted that it might be a long time before the U.S., which had hosted four Olympics between 1980 and 2002, would be favored with another. The USOC was left to try and lure donors and sell sponsorships without any prospect of a domestic Olympics to stir up excitement.
America’s tumble, in less than a decade, from top dog — poised to host two Olympics, Atlanta in 1996 and Salt Lake City in 2002, with major corporations lined up for a piece of the pie — to outsider can be traced primarily to three major embarrassments on the U.S. sporting landscape:
The 1996 Atlanta Games: To the Olympic establishment “Atlanta” remains the equivalent of a four-letter word. The city had sold the IOC voters on a genteel celebration of the New South; instead, Atlanta delivered a giant flea market, its downtown flooded with vendors hawking tacky souvenirs and bad food. Olympic tradition dictated that at the closing ceremonies IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch would declare the just-concluded Games “the greatest ever.” In Atlanta, Samaranch remained conspicuously silent.
The Salt Lake Bribery Scandal: When bribing IOC voters helped Salt Lake City win the 2002 Winter Games, nobody suggested it had claimed the IOC’s virginity too. But U.S. politicians moved with unseemly haste to blame the unseemly mess on the foreign bribees rather than the American bribers. The IOC was particularly distressed by congressional efforts — John McCain played a leading role — to have Samaranch come to Washington to testify about IOC business practices.
BALCO: For decades, the U.S. had led the sports world in sanctimony, pointing fingers at rival countries for the use of performance-enhancing drugs by their athletes. Then came the 2004 bust at BALCO, the high-tech nutrition company with Barry Bonds among its all-star roster of clients, including Marion Jones and other prominent U.S. Olympians. The U.S. was exposed as the epicenter of sports doping and the fingers were now pointing back (many of them up-raised middles).
Each fiasco was regarded by the IOC as a reflection of America’s lack of respect bordering on contempt for its putative values. And while the Bush administration was not responsible for any of them, the president’s parochial world-view and go-it-alone foreign policy exacerbated the tensions. The Olympic community has swiftly embraced Obama as a dramatic counterpoint — a genuine internationalist with close ties to both Africa and Asia — to his predecessor. And it is thrilled by the speed with which he has returned the embrace.
Of course, with his hometown of Chicago carrying the U.S. banner for the 2016 Games, the new president has plenty of incentive to make nice. Before the presidential election, Chicago was regarded as an underdog in the four-city race. The proposals for both Madrid and Tokyo had earned higher technical ratings from the IOC, while the choice of Rio de Janeiro would be a historic first South American Olympics. Obama has already campaigned publicly for the Chicago bid, casting the Olympics in the kind of grandiose terms that appeal to IOC voters. Chicago 2016, he has suggested, is a path to rapprochement, the ideal vehicle through which the world could reengage with the U.S. in a positive fashion.
The IOC won’t pick a 2016 winner until its October meeting in Copenhagen. But when it comes to vanity, all IOC delegates are gold-medalists. The last two successful Olympic campaigns — London for 2012 and Sochi (Russia) for 2014 — went into the vote regarded as underdogs. They were boosted by political luminaries as first Tony Blair, then Vladimir Putin courted the IOC assemblages. So don’t be surprised if President Obama heads off to Europe this fall and finds some time to detour to Denmark. His charm and persuasive powers are Chicago’s best hope for bringing home the 2016 Games.