Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

IOC/USOC Relations and the 2009 IOC Session in Copenhagen

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

IOC/USOC Relations and the 2009 IOC Session in Copenhagen

Article excerpt


In the waning days before the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision on the site for the 2016 Summer Olympics, U.S. President Barack Obama and members of his senior staff debated the merits of a presidential mission to Copenhagen in support of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics. (1) Most observers believed Chicago was in a pitched battle with Rio de Janeiro, the hard charging South American finalist, for the right to host the Games. Few believed the IOC's European cohort was brazen enough to push hard for a London (2012), Sochi (2014), and Madrid (2016) rotation given such a result would have delivered five out of seven successive festivals to the continent. Tokyo, while well positioned financially to accept the challenge of hosting the 2016 Olympics, suffered from tepid domestic support. Rio de Janeiro's call for the Games to be delivered to the South American continent for the first time, buttressed by the city's successful staging of the 2007 Pan Am Games, was chipping away at Chicago's support. This popular thinking likely informed Obama's decision to board Air Force One and make an appeal on behalf of his hometown.

President Obama found himself in a 'no-win' situation. If he travelled to Copenhagen, and Chicago won, he would receive little credit as reporters would relay the thinking that the IOC had taken the predictable course of cashing in on the American market in terms of anticipated television and corporate sponsorship revenue, especially during lean economic times. If Chicago won in his absence, he would receive no credit despite having established an Olympic office in the White House, recorded a promotional video for Chicago for circulation within the Olympic family, and committed his personal support to Chicago's project in a letter to IOC members. If he appeared in the Danish capital and Patrick Ryan's Chicago 2016 bid committee lost, reporters would claim that Obama's presidential aura was greatly diminished. If Chicago suffered a defeat in the absence of a 'personal push' from Obama, he would be blamed for not having made the effort to attend irrespective of the challenges of the health care reform debate on the home front and the country's continuing military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For John Hoberman, author of The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order, the political calculation weighed against President Obama's visit. Hoberman discounted the value of a Chicago victory to the President. He lacked faith in the results of the reform process tied to the Salt Lake City scandal of the late 1990s, and remained dubious of the effect of any changes on the integrity of the IOC or the bidding process. "Real reformers," stated Hoberman, "are [still] outnumbered by the royals, the hustlers, and the self-important nonentities" in the organization. Winning the favour of the IOC, he concluded, didn't deliver sufficient political capital for Obama to justify the risk of absorbing a defeat:

   All of this makes Obama's Olympic mission a political gamble both
   at home and abroad. If he pulls it off and brings the games to
   Chicago, he will add a gleaming, but low-carat, gem to his crown.
   For there is nothing that fades more quickly from the American mind
   than a quadrennial Olympiad. If he fails, the right wing will
   pillory him as a dilettante who should have kept his eye on
   weightier affairs of state. Nor would a 'loss' to the president of
   Brazil or the prime minister of Spain do much for Mr. Obama's
   international stature. All of this suggests that Obama should have
   left well enough alone and stayed at home. (2)

Obama's critics in the U.S. predictably seized upon his decision to support Chicago's campaign with a personal overseas mission to score political points. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R--Ohio) charged that Obama bungled his efforts at prioritizing items on his agenda: "Listen, I think it's a great idea to promote Chicago but he's the president of the United States, not the mayor of Chicago," Boehner said. …

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