Friday, October 2, 2009

What Wins the Olympics

So, Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting in Copenhagen, and Rio de Janeiro has won the 2016 Summer Olympics. Media reports have quoted Chicagoans as being shocked, shocked, that the Windy City didn't win with its four-year, $48 million bid, despite intense personal lobbying by U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Heck, even Oprah Winfrey jetted to Denmark to try to win the Summer Games for Chicago.

Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. But, really, what did anyone expect? Britain's then-prime minister Tony Blair is credited with swaying the Olympic pooh-bahs to award the games to London for 2012, but generally star power is not what wins Olympics. Infrastructure, sexiness and geography do that.

Rio won the 2016 Summer Games at least in part because no South American city has ever hosted an Olympics, and it is their time. It won because of Brazil's legendary, impassioned sports fans and 24/7 party reputation. And I guess the city's infrastructure - backed by billions in guaranteed government money - is good enough, or will be seven years from now.

Ditto with the next Olympics, the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, Canada, scheduled for February. Vancouver didn't get the Games because Canada's top politician or a raft of Canadian celebrities lobbied the International Olympic Committee. It won because it has a modern airport (now connected to downtown by an airport express train), major indoor sports arenas and first-rate mountain sports facilities in the great outdoors. Celine Dion and Dan Ackroyd wouldn't have been able to get it done.

Obama has got bigger things on his plate. Things like a very deep recession, overseas wars and global warming. He - and other heads of state - risk debasing their political currency by jetting abroad to lobby for the Olympics, especially when IOC officials deem certain candidate cities not ready for global prime time.

Look, I like Chicago. I like the food, I like the El, I like the people, I like the blues clubs on the South Side, the river, the justly famous architecture. But much of the financing - reportedly $4.8 billion - was to come from the private sector, and the private sector in the United States, as we have all noticed, lacks liquidity. And as for infrastructure, there is the primary airport in the city of broad shoulders to consider: O'Hare. Need I say more?

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