Race for the Rings: Where did Chicago go wrong?

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16, 2009 – In the aftermath of the elimination of Chicago on the first ballot in the run for the 2016 Olympic Games, there has been plenty of hand-wringing about what went wrong.

What did Chicago do or not do to deserve this result?

Nothing, really.

Chicago put forth an excellent bid and broke new ground for American bid cities. The venue and village concepts were sound, if expensive, and the plan for the Games – conceived by the talented Doug Arnot – was very well done. The bid was strongly financed and the Chicagoans matched their counterparts from Rio, Madrid and Tokyo in showing up at international meeting after international meeting.

So, shouldn’t that be enough? Unfortunately, no.

Chicago did not lose the Games as much as Rio won them. Despite substantial problems with crime and a projected infrastructure cost of more than $11 billion U.S., Rio’s clear advantage was that the Games have never been held in South America. And they played that card strongly and unashamedly. They won because of it.

Madrid made it through to the finals thanks to three strong elements: (1) it was the only bidder from Europe, which has a plurality of I.O.C. members; (2) former I.O.C. president Juan Antonio Samaranch called it personal favors from the dozens of members that were appointed during his 20 years in office, and (3) the Spanish got high marks for the brilliant Games held in Barcelona in 1992 and there was no doubt that Madrid would do as well or better.

Against this, there was little chance for Chicago or Tokyo, despite the pre-event hoopla. This was fairly obvious to outside observers, but the excitement generated by the Chicago bid committee – another sign of their competence – created an expectation that its bid would fare better.

If there is criticism to be leveled at the Chicago bid, it’s in some small things that could have helped move votes in areas which the I.O.C. members – many of whom have day jobs as officers or directors of National Olympic Committees or International Federations – actually care about:

• A constant thorn in the side of international sports officials (and other visitors) is the difficulty in obtaining visas for travel to meetings and events in the United States. This could have been answered directly by an initiative by the Obama Administration, which had a close tie with the Chicago organizing committee in Valerie Jarrett, who worked for the Chicago bid prior to moving to the White House. Because the Executive branch controls our immigration and customs control, an offer to have visas issued by embassies and consulates working directly with N.O.C.s and I.F.s in their own countries would have shown the requisite outreach needed to impress I.O.C. members.

• Chicago did not have a clear selling proposition to the I.O.C. Rio had geography, Madrid cast itself as the “safe and sane” Games that would work without problems, and Tokyo pushed its 21st Century sustainability credentials and a “carbon-neutral” Games. Chicago’s promotion of a compact Games and a friendly city wasn’t in the same league as these clear, overarching propositions.

So Chicago lost. However, the impact of its bid will be felt for some time to come, as it set new standards in several areas. Of greatest import to future bid cities will be Chicago’s willingness – in a 49-0 vote by the City Council – to sign the I.O.C.’s standard host-city contract and accept unlimited liability for the financing of the Games. That’s a hard one to swallow for any U.S. city, but Chicago agreed to it. Further, former AON Corporation chairman Patrick Ryan was near-magical in bringing Chicago’s corporate community together to fund the bid and contributed several million dollars of his own money to help. Any future U.S. bidder is going to have to deal with both of those Chicago realities in putting together any new bid.

Where the U.S. Olympic Committee goes from here with a future Olympic bid is anyone’s guess. In this century, it has put up New York and Chicago and lost twice and pushed aside two bid efforts from Los Angeles and well-presented bids from cities such as Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Only Los Angeles offers a near-ready set of facilities, including an Olympic Village, that would eliminate nearly all construction costs.

But it’s wrong to berate Chicago and wonder if they could have done better. They did as well as they could and in a close race among four contenders, they should be saluted for an excellent effort despite the disappointing results.

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