(AP)—President Barack Obama was in the comfort of his private quarters on Air Force One somewhere over the Atlantic when he got the news. The vote was in, his adopted hometown had been trounced, and the embarrassment of the U.S. Olympic movement now officially stretched all the way to the White House.
That’s not exactly the way it had been planned for Copenhagen. Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey were supposed to butter up the crusty IOC delegates before the president himself sealed the deal for Chicago with an appeal for all that is right and honorable in the Olympic movement.
The problem is, there’s not too much right with the way Olympics are handed out. And honorable left the building years ago.
Turns out the Second City never had a chance. Organizers of the 2016 Olympic bid in Chicago could have built a dozen new stadiums and luxury palaces on Michigan Avenue for all 94 IOC members voting in the first round and not won this one.
They got 18 votes. That’s right, 18 stinkin’ votes.
Hardly worth even gassing up Air Force One—a cool $1 million 14-hour trip.
And imagine how Oprah feels now that she knows she’s not loved by all?
Actually, embarrassing might be too mild to describe this Olympic-sized whipping. Humiliating would be more like it.
Political wags will debate what it all means to Obama, but he really had no choice other than to take the redeye overseas. Everyone else seemed to have a king or a president in their pocket, and the president would have been criticized just as much for not making the effort.
But they should have known better. Political skullduggery may rule the day in Washington, D.C., but they’ve elevated it to a new art form when it comes to the Olympics.
Give Rio a lot of credit. Organizers there understood there was a lot more to winning the Olympics than throwing up a few new arenas, and they used the lure of the first games in South America to great advantage.
They also understood how to put together voting blocs, spending years cultivating voters in Africa who had to hope that success for Rio might someday lead to the first Olympics on their continent.
Chicago apparently understood neither. Its bid leaders mistakenly thought the combination of an impressive bid and a return of the summer games to the United States for the first time in 20 years would be enough.
But to finish dead last among the four cities in the first vote? To be outlasted by a Tokyo bid that had no soul and no real appeal?
To suffer the further indignity of trash-talk from the French?
“To have the president of the United States and his wife personally appear, then this should happen in the first round is awful and totally undeserving,” senior Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper said.
It’s easy to blame this one on delegates from around the world simply preferring ABA (Anybody But America). These are, after all, the same people who rejected New York for the 2012 Games even when the city used the emotional undertow of 9/11 to make a bid eventually won by London.
There’s more at work here, though, something that both Obama’s advisers and Chicago organizers should have understood. Although it’s true numbers and cliques dictate that the United States is an underdog in any Olympic vote—assuming, of course, that delegates can’t be bribed anymore—there are other reasons this vote was such a fiasco.
To begin with, the last two Olympics in the United States weren’t exactly roaring successes. Atlanta will be remembered for a bombing and for being disorganized, while Salt Lake City’s games were held under oppressive post 9/11 security and featured a skating scandal.
The continuing dysfunction within the U.S. Olympic Committee didn’t help, either. U.S. Olympic officials angered the IOC with plans—later postponed—to start an Olympic television network, and there is a lot of resentment in the IOC over the huge amounts of money the USOC gets from American television rights to the games and their refusal to share more of those proceeds.
Had Chicago gotten the games, the feeling among some in the IOC is that the Americans would have basically won control over the Olympic movement for the next several years and would have little incentive to negotiate on either issue.
The bottom line was the United States had little political currency to spend, no matter the star power. Though Chicago came up with a great plan and made a big push, no one had done any groundwork in recent years to make IOC delegates feel as if they had any obligation to reward the United States.
While they partied the night away in Rio, people in Chicago were left to figure out if there was a market in used Olympic banners.
With the two greatest cities in the country losing successive bids, U.S. Olympic officials must be wondering whether there is any future in bidding for the games at all.
(Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)