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President Obama is headed to Copenhagen. Will it matter?
BOSTON — President Barack Obama will travel to Copenhagen on Thursday to lobby International Olympic Commission voters on behalf of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid — a last-second appeal before the IOC awards the Games on Friday.
Ever since Obama’s election, the Chicago 2016 campaign had been counting on its hometown hero to sway IOC voters, as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did for London 2012 and former Russian President Vladimir Putin did for Sochi 2014 in the last two triumphant Olympic campaigns.
But in a race that is considered too close to call among all four candidates — Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo are the other finalists — Obama, who earlier had announced that the health care fight would keep him in Washington, may have been forced to show up just to level the playing field.
After all, there will be no shortage of political charmers in Denmark; all four Olympic hopefuls will have heads of state there doing the meet-and-greet. And while Obama will have his wife alongside — as well as the queen of Chicago, Oprah Winfrey — genuine royalty from both Spain and Japan is expected to be on hand for the final IOC vote.
The election of Obama, with his international viewpoint and his roots in both Africa and Asia, has already done much to counter antipathy toward the United States. But there was no way Obama could combat the longstanding IOC resentments of the U.S. Olympic movement for the tacky Atlanta Games that sullied the brand and then the embarrassment of the Salt Lake City 2002 bribery scandal. While Chicago is a significantly stronger candidate than New York City was four years ago when it finished behind London, Paris and Madrid in the vote for the 2012 Games, U.S. Olympic Committee actions this year may have damaged an American candidacy. Given that the IOC is the ultimate old-boys network, the USOC decision to dump a veteran leadership team seemed particularly poorly timed. And the USOC, already in an ongoing spat with the IOC over revenue shares, started a new one with its proposed U.S. Olympic television network.
But in a year when the IOC’s history of rotating the Olympics geographically — following Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London — pointed to a win for the Americas, nothing has hurt Chicago’s hopes more than the emergence of Rio as a strong contender — and in the final days, according to Olympic insiders and bookmakers alike, as the favorite.
Rio, with its beaches, samba rhythms and carnival spirit, was always the sentimental favorite. Beyond the romance of the city, the IOC likes to make history and South America is the only continent other than Africa and Antarctica (a potential choice for a Summer Olympics by the mid-century) never to have hosted the Games.
Still, that didn’t figure to offset more pragmatic considerations, most notably the struggles of a third-world economy as well as a crime problem that makes Chicago’s Al Capone era look tame. However, many Rio supporters sounded the counterpoint: that, unlike the other three nations seeking to host, Brazil had never suffered a terrorist attack. And Brazil scored big points by hosting the 2007 Pan-Am Games in Rio without serious problems and, soon after, impressed again when it was awarded soccer’s 2014 World Cup.
Over the last year, with the whole world beginning to resemble a third-world economy, the Rio bid began to seem more robust. And its proposed expenditures were more modest than some of its rivals. Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva found a pitch line likely to resonate with many IOC voters when he said — repeatedly — that hosting an Olympics “cannot be a privilege reserved for rich nations.” Rio made another shrewd, political move recently when it named Carlos Nuzman, a popular IOC insider, as the man who would head its organizing committee for its 2016 Games.