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Chicago hoping for the Obama factor

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sep.27.2009

Less than a week before the International Olympic Committee chooses a host city for the 2016 Games, Chicago bid officials are holding out hope for the presence of one person who may guarantee a victory: President Obama.

Citing the pressing issue of health care reform, Obama has said he will not make the trip for the I.O.C.’s vote on Friday in Copenhagen. But his wife, Michelle Obama, a lifelong Chicagoan, will mingle with the 100-odd I.O.C. voters and plug her city as the best choice among it and Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.

“I’m sure Michelle Obama will be great, but she’s not the president,” said Robert Livingstone, the producer for the Web site GamesBids.com, which exists solely to follow the business of Olympic bids. “You would have to imagine that at least one vote would change if Obama shows up. And this vote might be won by two or less votes. So his coming is very, very critical. If he’s there, there’s no guessing. He will sway votes Chicago’s way.”

Every day, a new star or group of celebrities joins Chicago’s contingent bound for Denmark. More than two dozen Olympians and Paralympians will be there. Oprah Winfrey, too. More recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood got on board.

For his part, the president has written letters, given speeches and set up an Olympic liaison office at the White House to support the bid. Will that be enough?

Obama can thank Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, for setting the bar high when it comes to wooing the I.O.C. In 2005, Blair and his wife, Cherie, traveled to the vote in Singapore to lobby for London’s bid for the 2012 Games. Underdog London defeated Paris, and Blair’s last-minute efforts were said to have won the day.

In 2007 in Guatemala City, at the next I.O.C. vote to choose a host city, Vladimir V. Putin, then the president of Russia, addressed the membership in English, pushing for Sochi, Russia, to host the 2014 Games. Sochi won.

This time, the finalists know how much weight the appearance of a head of state can carry.

“Having our king there is very important to us because he represents the stability of our country,” Antonio Fernández Arimany, the managing director for the Madrid bid, said of King Juan Carlos of Spain. “I think that’s one of our advantages.”

In Copenhagen, Madrid will also have Queen Sophia and Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Rio will have President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Tokyo is hoping to count on Crown Prince Naruhito and the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.

“One of the most important questions is always, Is there support at the highest level?” Anita DeFrantz, one of the United States’ two delegates, said of the I.O.C.’s concerns regarding governmental support for a city’s bid. She added that Chicago, even without the president, is in a good position because he has backed the bid wholeheartedly.

Although no United States president has ever attended an I.O.C. vote, there is a chance that Obama will be there. No travel plans have been set, but the White House has sent an advance team to Copenhagen just in case. Obama would need to carve out about 18 hours for the trip. Nonstop flights between Washington and Copenhagen take about eight hours each way. Travel time between the Copenhagen airport and downtown is about 20 minutes. Obama would need about an hour to schmooze with I.O.C. members — or speak during Chicago’s presentation. (Each bid city has 70 minutes to make its case.)

“Having him there for us would be a great asset because he’s done so much for our bid, has been so outspoken, that everyone knows how committed he is,” Patrick G. Ryan, Chicago’s bid leader, said recently at Chicago 2016 headquarters. “The I.O.C. knows that he has presidential business and would be there if he could.”

But I.O.C. votes can be unpredictable. So after spending nearly 4 years and more than $48 million on the bid, Chicago has no guarantee it will win the first Summer Games for the United States since 1996 in Atlanta. It may not even finish in the top three.

Each round of secret balloting is fraught with suspense, with the 100-plus I.O.C. members often surreptitiously trading allegiances. One I.O.C. member, who did not want to be named for fear of losing the trust of future bid officials, once promised his vote to each city on the first ballot.

If no city receives a majority the first time around, the city with the fewest votes is eliminated before the next ballot is taken. The I.O.C. will declare a winning city at about 12:30 p.m. Eastern time Friday, when the breakdown of votes will be revealed.

Chicago and Rio are considered front-runners, according to several betting parlors and Web sites that follow the competition. According to GamesBids.com, Rio is in the lead, with Chicago a close second. Tokyo ranks third, and Madrid is last. Bet365.com and Betfair.com each give Chicago the best odds of winning, followed by Rio, Tokyo and Madrid.

But Livingstone of GamesBids.com said that this contest was so close that no city should be counted out. Many times, the days before the vote are crucial, he said. “Rio has got the momentum and the emotion behind it right now,” said Livingstone, referring to the fact that South America has never hosted the Olympics. “That’s another reason the president should be there. He needs to work it and stir up some emotion for Chicago.”

The Chicago bid is pushing ahead, with the president or not. No detail is being overlooked. A news release stated that Chicago-based designers had created the bid team’s clothing — “including neckwear.” The official apparel signifies “teamwork and cohesion,” the release said.

“We’re not leaving anything to chance,” Ryan, the bid leader, said. “I think where people have gotten in trouble, with some bids, is that they start to assume victory and they let that carry over into some arrogance. But we’re staying humble. We’re going to work, work, work until the end.”

Since the I.O.C. released a final technical evaluation of the cities in early September, every bid team has tried to remedy the perceived problems with its plan.

Spain, which was criticized for its antidoping stand, changed its laws to comply with those set by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Tokyo, whose relatively low public support was a concern, hailed a recent parade that attracted more than 400,000 bid supporters.

Chicago’s main problem was that neither the city nor the federal government had provided an unlimited guarantee to cover cost overruns. But in mid-September, the City Council voted unanimously to do so. Mayor Richard M. Daley said that move “sent a very strong message” to the I.O.C. But, as bid officials know, the city that seems the best may not be the one celebrating come election day.

“It’s going to be tight, very tight,” Ryan said before referring to the American swimmer who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. “We just want to be like Michael Phelps and touch the wall first, just before the end.”

Phelps won his seventh gold by a hundredth of a second, in a photo finish.
 

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