In early October 2009, as Chicago faced off against Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid for the title of 2016 Summer Olympics host city, President Barack Obama raised eyebrows by flying to Denmark to deliver a personal pitch for his adopted hometown to the International Olympic Committee.
After coming back empty-handed, the president put the best possible face on the setback, which delighted Republicans and was framed by many commentators as a sign of America’s diminished standing abroad. From CNN:
Upon returning to the White House on Friday, Obama expressed no regret about his trip, saying it is “always a worthwhile endeavor to promote and boost the United States.”
“One of the things that I think is most valuable about sports is that you can play a great game and still not win,” the president said. “Although I wish that we had come back with better news from Copenhagen, I could not be prouder of my hometown of Chicago.”
And an interview published seven years to the day Chicago’s Olympic bid went down in flames made it clear Obama is still stung by the snub. Oct. 2, 2009, was one one of the days that defined his presidency because the gleeful right-wing response to the defeat drove home the magnitude of the obstructionist mood he was up against, he told New York Magazine.
A very effective committee had flown to Copenhagen to make their presentation, and Michelle had gone with them, and I got a call, I think before the thing had ended but on fairly short notice, that everybody thought that if I flew out there we had a good chance of getting it and it might be worth essentially just taking a one-day trip. So we fly out there. Subsequently, I think we’ve learned that IOC’s decisions are similar to FIFA’s decisions: a little bit cooked. We didn’t even make the first cut, despite the fact that, by all the objective metrics, the American bid was the best.
Jerry Colangelo, the Chicago Heights native and chairman of USA Basketball who accompanied the Obamas, former Mayor Richard J. Daley and other officials on the ill-fated trip to Copenhagen, aired similar accusations recently.
He suspects Chicago lost a rigged race.
“You can speculate about what caused the vote to be what it was, but all that really truly is, is speculation,” he told the Sun-Times on Monday. “But I experienced what I did, and I’m just telling you what I believe.”
Earlier Monday, he told ESPN Radio that the vote was “wired,” and the decision was “made before the vote even took place” on Oct. 2, 2009.
Although a poll taken on September 2009 showed 47 percent of Chicago residents supported the bid while 45 percent opposed it, many Chicagoans were stunned by the IOC’s cold shoulder.
Over time, some local commentators (see here, here and here) decided that shirking the costs of hosting the mega event was actually a boon to the increasingly crime-ridden, debt-laden metropolis, which is not done paying for the failed bid.
But some Chicagoans still pine for what might have been. Thankfully, they’re aiming their gripes at the IOC rather than Brazil, even though they obviously feel Chicago would have been a comparable or superior host. Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business gave Rio props while simultaneously moping:
If Rio, with all of its problems, could produce a respectable games—and man, their problems make Chicago’s look tiny—what would Chicago have produced? Not only a spectacle for the world but, more important, for the homefront. […] Ultimately, the only way for the city to escape its pension woes is to grow its way out of trouble with new business and new tax revenues. The 2016 Olympics were the kind of big idea that offered that possibility.
But it was Colangelo who summed up the Chicago-centric “we wuz robbed” viewpoint better than anyone: “I would much rather be in Chicago than Rio. How’s that?”
Photos by WBEZ, cc via Flickr