2024 candidates hope to learn from Chicago’s loss
CHICAGO (AP) — Every day for a year after his most painful professional setback, the chief of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics got hit with some form of the same question, always from a different person: Why?
The answer: It wasn’t really Chicago’s fault.
The biggest lesson any of the U.S. cities considering hosting the 2024 Olympics can take from this country’s last loss is simple: It isn’t always the city that’s being judged. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington or Boston will be graded in their bid for the 2024 Games against the cities they’re running against, and will also carry whatever baggage the U.S. Olympic Committee takes into its relationships with international voters.
“This was a solid bid,” said John Murray, the chief bid officer for Chicago 2016. “It’s something we were really proud of. At the end of the day, we had factors stacked against us.”
Most of the wounds have healed in the five years since Chicago’s last-place finish in the vote for the 2016 Summer Olympics won by Rio de Janeiro. Murray, now chair of the Chicago Sports Commission, is a speaker at this week’s annual USOC assembly, which the federation brought to Chicago — the first major USOC event in the Windy City since the fateful 2009 vote in Copenhagen.
The USOC board will meet Thursday and Friday at the assembly. Big on the agenda is discussion about whether the USOC should bid for the 2024 Games. All signs point toward a bid, though the USOC won’t decide for a few months, after it has seen the International Olympic Committee’s “Agenda 2020,” which could reshape the bidding process.
Chicago’s effort to land the 2016 games came during a low point in USOC-IOC relations. There was tension over a revenue-sharing agreement the IOC thought poured too much into U.S. coffers. The USOC had a plan to start an Olympic network, which rankled the IOC leadership intent on protecting its product. There were age-old, and possibly outdated, worries about the U.S. lack of a financial guarantee from the federal government. As IOC member Denis Oswald put it after Chicago’s humiliation: “It was a defeat for the USOC, not for Chicago.”
Under new leadership — chairman Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun have replaced the sometimes-polarizing Peter Ueberroth and overmatched Stephanie Streeter — the relationship has been healing. The revenue-sharing agreement has been rewritten, plans for a US-based network have been shelved and the USOC has kept its biggest partner, NBC, in the game to the tune of a $7.75 billion deal to televise the Olympics in the United States through 2032.
“We’ve had a change of president, which does no harm at all to that dynamic, either,” said Canadian IOC member Dick Pound, speaking of Thomas Bach, who replaced Jacques Rogge as the IOC’s leader last year.
“I think Larry and Scott have been doing a terrific job,” Pound said. “Personally, I think it’s good for the IOC and the Olympic movement to have the Games in America. Not every time. But from time to time. That mitigates in favor of America.”
The United States hasn’t hosted a Summer Olympics since 1996 in Atlanta. Pound points out that there are only 15 members on the 105-member IOC who were there when the vote for the Atlanta Games was conducted in 1990.
But the IOC had never awarded an Olympics to a South American country before it gave the Games to Rio. That, both Murray and Pound insist, was the most compelling factor working against Chicago.
Murray said it felt like a body blow during the final presentations, when Rio coordinators put an image of a world map up on the big screen and populated it with cities that had hosted previous Olympics.
The South American continent was blank, as was Africa’s. It was a visceral piece of intelligence that not only tugged at hearts of IOC members on the fence, but also at the voters from Africa, who Chicago thought it had in its corner for the first round of voting. Not so. And as a result, Chicago was the first city eliminated.
“People outside the movement have a hard time understanding what being the first city out really means,” Murray said. “A lot of times, they think it means the least desirable city instead of understanding how voting blocs work, and how the game is played.”
Were an African city to bid for 2024 — not expected at this point — the U.S. candidate could face the same sort of hurdle.
In the absence of that, and if the USOC-IOC relationship continues to stabilize, logic would dictate the United States would be in as good a position as it has been for decades. The U.S. also lost in the 2012 bidding when New York finished fourth of five.
Of course, nobody can predict how things might change — both inside the Olympic movement and around the world — in the three years before the awarding of the 2024 Games.
“I’m not one of those who thinks 2024 is the U.S. bid to lose,” Murray said. “But I certainly don’t think we’re disadvantaged in the way we were going into 2016.”