The Obama Watch

The Obama Olympics

By 6.25.09

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Last week, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley led a delegation to Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Windy City made its bid in front of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Chicago is competing against Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo to host the games. The IOC will announce the host city on October 2 in Copenhagen.

While Daley was the public face of Chicago's bid in Lausanne let there be no mistake. The true public face of Chicago's Olympic bid is its favorite adopted son, President Barack Obama. The night before Chicago's presentation, President Obama established a White House Olympics office to make clear the games were about him even if they weren't backed by financial guarantees. Mayor Daley subsequently announced in the safe confines a Swiss canton near the shores of Lake Geneva that the City of Chicago would spare no expense in funding the Olympics. Had Daley made this announcement in Chicago he might have been tossed into cold waters of nearby Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But even if Chicago taxpayers end up footing the bill, the 31st Olympiad will be forever known as the Obama Olympics.

Dick Pound, who has represented Canada on the IOC for more than thirty years, is characteristically blunt as to how President Obama has improved the chances the 2016 Olympics will be hosted on U.S. soil:

Without Obama in the White House, I would say there would be no chance whatsoever for the U.S. winning. The U.S. is the only country in this race that has had an absolutely extraordinary transformational experience with the election of Obama, which weighs heavily in its favor. 

Naturally, some in the IOC try to downplay Obama's significance where it concerns the 2016 summer games. Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jr. is one. His father, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was President of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. The younger Samaranch recently said, "It is one thing to be impressed and to be excited about greeting the President of the United States, and it is another thing to vote for Chicago because you had coffee with the U.S. President." Of course, Samaranch is from Spain and is keen to see the games come to Madrid. Coffee with Obama might not mean much to him individually but the thought of other IOC members having coffee with Obama undoubtedly gives Samaranch the jitters.

While Samaranch might keep his anxiety to himself the same cannot be said of former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori who is eager to have the eyes of the world on Tokyo seven years from now. Yet he doesn't seem optimistic about Tokyo's chances and worries openly about the Obama factor. Mori recently told Reuters:

You also have to ask if the Games will come back to Asia (so soon) after Beijing last year. The threat could come from America. Chicago could be the biggest rival, helped by Obama's popularity. Like many people, I thought Paris was almost certain to win the vote to host 2012. Then Tony Blair got involved at the end and people say that tipped it and London won. I don't think (Japanese PM) Taro Aso would have much impact. I do wonder how many times the U.S. needs to host the Olympics though. 

The thought of Obama addressing IOC delegates directly scares Japan, Spain and Brazil to their very core and rightly so. Should Obama wax eloquent IOC delegates might not only award Chicago the Olympics they could also elect Obama President of the Whole World. It is worth noting that the BBC World Service conducted a poll in 22 countries last summer regarding the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. Brazil was amongst those countries surveyed. By a four-to-one margin, respondents favored Obama over Republican standard bearer John McCain. The selection of the Olympic host city is the one opportunity the international community has to cast a ballot for Obama. And they could so without committing ground troops to Afghanistan.

If elected to a second term in 2012, Obama would be due to leave office only a few months after the Olympics. Should Chicago be selected to host the 2016 Summer Olympics the games will become a celebration of Obama. His local political base plus his legion of admirers from throughout the United States and the world would descend upon Chicago for the Obama love fest to end all Obama love fests. It will make the Roman columns used for his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech last August look modest by comparison. Think of the ostentatious style of the Obama Inaugural only in much warmer weather.

But suppose Obama is somehow defeated in 2012. Well, let us remember there will be a Presidential election in 2016. Obama would be 55 years old and undoubtedly eager to pull a Grover Cleveland. He would still have the same legion of admirers who would treat him as their leader in exile (albeit a very comfortable exile.) The Chicago Olympics would be the perfect backdrop for a political comeback especially if any of the ceremonies were to take place in Grant Park -- the same place he spoke after prevailing on election night last November.

While it is undoubtedly true Barack Obama would prefer to attend the Chicago Olympics as President of the United States, either way if the games come to Chicago they will play an important part in shaping his legacy both in the United States and around the world. Who knows? He might even get a gold medal out of it.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.