Politics & Government

Obama camp is optimistic Chicago will win 2016 Olympics

Chicago bids for the 2016 Summer Olympics
Chicago bids for the 2016 Summer Olympics Matt Dunham / AP

WASHINGTON — Team Obama starts arriving Wednesday in Copenhagen, the vanguard of a high-profile effort to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago, the president's adopted hometown.

First lady Michelle Obama and top White House adviser Valerie Jarrett are to arrive at the International Olympic Committee meeting in Denmark on Wednesday to start lobbying in competition with three other bidders: Madrid, Spain; Rio de Janeiro; and Tokyo.

President Barack Obama will join them Friday in the first personal bid for an Olympics by a U.S. president. He'll go head to head with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan and King Juan Carlos of Spain.

The lobbying is personal, of course: The Obamas and Jarrett are from Chicago, as are many of the top White House staff.

So is some of the criticism from conservatives who are lambasting the White House lobbying for the Olympics.

Pundit Michelle Malkin is ripping the U.S. bid, saying that the Obamas "wasted public school kids' time as junior lobbyists for their Chicago cronies' Olympics bid" when they invited some children to the White House for a pro-Olympics event. Conservative-leaning Web site Drudge Report suggested that gang violence taints Chicago's bid with a lead headline Tuesday: "Olympic Spirit: Video Shows Brutal Gang Murder in Chicago."

Jarrett dismissed the sniping.

"The Olympics are as American as anything I can imagine," she said in an interview Tuesday with McClatchy before leaving for Copenhagen. "People have come here from all over the world, worked hard and provided for their families. All of what we stand for here is the essence of the Olympic spirit. I can't imagine why anyone would be against it."

Jarrett said she was cautiously optimistic about the U.S. pitch, thanks in part to secret tips from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and broad support from most of the country.

"We think the bid is in very solid shape," said Jarrett, a former aide to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley whose White House portfolio now includes the title of chair of the White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport.

She said the message in Denmark would be that Chicago was a world-class city, a robust and diverse place that symbolized the American dream and could handle the Olympics easily.

She'll note that Chicago has a long history of sponsoring major events, including national conventions and a million people in downtown's Grant Park every year for Fourth of July fireworks. A vast public-transportation network is capable of handling hordes of Olympics visitors, she said. "We could manage this without blinking an eye."

Also, Jarrett said, she'll stress that venues for the sporting events are close to one another and to the housing of the proposed Olympic village. All athletes would be within 15 minutes of the venues.

Finally, she boasted that "Chicago is a sports town. We are strong supporters of sporting events. Even when they're losing, the Cubs sell out."

Perhaps. Chicagoans haven't been that keen for the Olympics, however. A recent poll for WGN and the Chicago Tribune found that 47 percent of respondents supported the bid and 45 percent opposed it. Chicago Olympics organizers say the poll reflected anxiety about whether taxpayers would be liable for unanticipated budget shortfalls.

Chicago and Rio are the front-runners to win the nod, according to one insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment: Chicago because it would be the first U.S.-hosted Summer Olympics in 20 years — the last was in Atlanta in 1996 — and Rio because it would be the first in South America.

The IOC vote by secret ballot will take place after the leaders make their pitches Friday. The vote may go several rounds until one country gets a majority, so the lobbying is intense even for second choice.

One possible pivot point: Africa's votes on the committee. Africans also have never hosted an Olympics and could empathize with Rio. On the other hand, Obama's father was African and he's the first African-American U.S. president. With the votes of African IOC members in mind, African-American Reps. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Donald Payne, D-N.J., hosted a reception last week at the Capitol for 16 African ambassadors to the United States.

The president and his wife used their contacts at last week's G-20 summit to lobby for support. Vice President Joe Biden also has called countries to lobby.

"We have analyzed this from as many different perspectives as we can," Jarrett said. "We are fully prepared. We don't take a single IOC vote for granted."

Just to be sure, Jarrett sat down with Blair for an hour in New York last week to hear how he successfully lobbied to win the Olympics for London in 2012. She declined to share his tips.

"He gave us some tips. But I wouldn't tell you," she said. "Our competition is watching everything we do. This race isn't over until we cross the finish line."


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