Is Chicago's star falling?

Chicagoans have always called the first week of April by a special name: winter.

Though traces of the weekend snow squall have faded and the deep freeze has lifted, the city’s magnificent parks — Grant and Lincoln — remain barren and the joggers that dot the lakefront are still cloaked against the ravages of that famous Chicago wind, “the hawk.”

So Chicago may not be at its most entrancing when the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation commission arrives Wednesday to assess the city’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Chicago is the first four-day stop on the commission’s calendar — a schedule that paid little heed to weather or geography — and will be followed by visits to the other finalist host cities: Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Madrid. The IOC will vote on where to award the 2016 games on Oct. 2 in Copenhagen.

Just five months ago, the Chicago 2016 campaign celebrated the election of a native son, Barack Obama, convinced that the city now had an ace in the hole in this high-stakes game. Its fervent hope was that the new president’s popularity abroad would reverse a host of resentments against the United States, both within the IOC and the broader international community. And if the president could be coaxed to drop by Copenhagen for the pre-vote schmooze, he just might charm the games back to America, much as Tony Blair did for London 2012 four years ago in Singapore and Vladimir Putin did for Sochi 2014 two years ago in Guatemala.

There will, of course, be no presidential meet-and-greet in Chicago this week, as the president will be overseas on a slightly more urgent mission. Indeed, Obama’s election was pretty much the last good news for Chicago 2016. Since then the Olympic campaign has had to watch embarrassing political scandals stretching from the Illinois State House, leading to the impeachment of the governor, to Chicago City Hall, where a key member of Mayor Richard Daley’s cabinet was just convicted of mail fraud stemming from illegal hiring practices.

The stench of corruption emanating from that trials suggests that Daley’s new bright and shiny Chicago may be only a gussied-up version of his father’s political machine, which kept a stranglehold on the city for decades. (Similarly, a new crime wave conforms to many IOC members’ image of the city as Al Capone’s kind of town.) Moreover, any hint of bribery and secret patronage is an unwelcome reminder of the Salt Lake City Olympic bribery scandal that helped trigger the recent estrangement between the IOC and the American Olympic movement.

Any lingering tensions between the two have been further exacerbated by an ongoing dispute over what the IOC regards as the disproportionate share of Olympic revenues allocated to the United States Olympic Committee. Over the past weekend the USOC and IOC announced jointly that they have reached an amicable agreement to revisit the deal. Still, it’s not clear how far that amicability extends. When members of international federations for all summer Olympic sports met last week in Denver, they unanimously backed a resolution demanding that the IOC void its current contract with the USOC.

And in another case of bad timing for Chicago, the USOC recently dumped its popular CEO, Jim Scherr. Whatever Scherr’s management shortcomings, during his six years at the helm the former Olympic wrestler appeared to bring new stability and probity to the organization. Scherr had also forged strong ties with the Chicago 2016 leadership and has been framing a coordinated campaign for 2016, something sorely lacking with New York City’s losing bid for 2012. Though both the USOC and Chicago 2016 insist their effort will not be affected, some may see the sudden change as symptomatic of chronic turmoil that seems to afflict the USOC and, possibly, as a warning sign for 2016.

Of course, none of the candidates for 2016 are immune to the worldwide economic crisis. But Chicago is already facing escalating deficit woes — estimates have it approaching a couple hundred million — before assuming any risks from hosting an Olympics. The IOC will try to determine if Chicago still has the economic will and might to stage the games as well as whether the public zeal for a Windy City Olympics has abated amid hard times.

One can already hear the joke that if the Olympics has to contend with a third-world economy, why not at least an experienced one like Brazil’s? Rio’s bid, which has the added appeal of an historic first for South America, appears to be garnering widespread support throughout the hemisphere. That portends potential ballot problems that can’t be remedied by the Chicago’s fabled political machine.

The IOC vote proceeds by rounds, with the bottom candidate dropped from the ballot until one city commands a majority. If Tokyo dominates the Asian vote, Madrid the European vote and Rio the vote from the Americas, Chicago might be a popular second choice among all sides and still find itself odd city out after the first ballot., which monitors Olympic campaigns, perceives some recent slippage in the Chicago candidacy. Though the race for 2016 is still regarded as too close to call, last week the site’s bid index lowered Chicago’s rating to last place among the four candidates. More than even before, Chicago’s hopes may rest with a miracle rescue by President Obama. But so many problems right now seem to require the president to work miracles. And, of late, miracles have been in rather short supply.

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