Why the White House's support of Chicago 2016 is a good thing

President Obama’s Support Will Reassure IOC Voters

Over the weekend, the White House Counsel’s Office issued a waiver to allow Senior Presidential Adviser Valerie Jarrett to lead White House efforts in support of the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid. This is a good thing.

Chicago is competing with Madrid, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro for the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The winner will be announced on October 2 in Copenhagen, where an appearance by President Obama could deliver the knockout punch (as Tony Blair’s did for London’s winning 2012 bid back in ’05). Whether the President appears live or on video, Chicago appears to be well positioned. It has mounted a strong bid that reportedly impressed the IOC evaluation team when it visited in April.

Chicago has a few other things going for it as well:

  •  A Madrid win would mean three of four Olympics (also Athens 2004, London 2012) would have been in Europe – an unlikely outcome.
  • Tokyo would mean two of three Games (also 2008 Beijing) would have been held in Asia – also unlikely.
  • Rio de Janeiro will likely get the Games one day (the Olympics have never been held in South America) but the consensus is the city is not ready in terms of security and stability.  And besides, Rio will have its hands full getting ready for the 2014 World Cup.
  • It is President Barack Obama’s hometown.

Don’t underestimate the Obama factor. The U.S. holds just two of 110 IOC votes. In fact, more than 50 percent of IOC votes reside in the hands of Europeans. President Obama’s popularity overseas and specifically in Europe will undoubtedly help land some votes.

But what will really get Chicago across the finish line is if IOC voters believe President Obama is personally standing behind his hometown bid. There would be a feeling of comfort knowing the U.S. President would do everything in his power to make sure the Chicago Olympics came off flawlessly. Naming Ms. Jarrett, the former volunteer Vice Chair of the Chicago 2016 bid and one of the President’s closest confidants, sends a strong signal.

Putin Reassured IOC Voters and Won the 2014 Winter Games Bid

Back in 2007, most experts considered Sochi, Russia a heavy underdog in the race for the 2014 Winter Games with Pyeongchang, South Korea and Salzburg, Austria the favorites. Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived on the scene, committed big money to develop the old Black Sea town as a winter sports resort and the suddenly reassured IOC voters fell in line.

The IOC hates to be embarrassed. Few people remember that the 1976 Winter Olympics were awarded to Denver. Don’t remember the Denver Games? That’s because they were relocated to Innsbruck after future Colorado governor Dick Lamm – concerned about costs and environmental impact – led a successful movement to give the Games back. Ever since, the IOC has been pretty particular about making sure the host city candidates have their leaders aligned in support of the bid.

TR Didn’t Even Get Invited in ’04: Presidential Participation in the Olympics

Presidential participation in domestic Olympics has come a long way since Teddy Roosevelt was apparently not even invited to the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis – the first held in the U.S. When the Olympics returned to the U.S. in 1932 for the Los Angeles Games, Vice President Charles Curtis (not President Hoover) opened the Games. New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt did the honors at Lake Placid in 1932.

After a long drought, the Olympics returned to the U.S. for the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Games and again, the VP was center stage with Richard Nixon presiding over the Opening Ceremony. VP Walter Mondale attended the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games in place of President Jimmy Carter, who has already announced his intention to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The turning point for Presidential participation came when, prior to 1984 Los Angeles Games, President Ronald Reagan established a White House Olympic Task Force to help the city of Los Angeles “cut through red tape” to make the Games a financial success. (Following the financial mess of the 1976 Montreal Summer Games, Tehran was the only other city than even wanted the Games). Sure enough, the Los Angeles Olympics generated a profit of nearly $250 million, used to support youth sports across the country.

President Ronald Reagan became the first U.S. President to personally attend an opening ceremony in 1984 – a role filled by President Clinton in Atlanta in 1996 and President Bush at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. At the 2008 Beijing Games, President Bush (who also supported the Chicago 2016 effort by doing an event in Chicago with Mayor Richard Daley and big leader Pat Ryan) became the first sitting U.S. president to attend a foreign Olympics.

Note:  Among the highlights of my career have been working three Olympic Games while with NBC Sports and having the privilege of attending the Beijing Games with President and Mrs. Bush