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  • Why can't the United States get an Olympics?


    December 29, 2012 10:45 pm  by Mark Zeigler
    North County Times

    President Obama flew to Copenhagen the morning of the vote, addressed the International Olympic Committee on behalf of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Games, spoke passionately and presidentially about his hometown, called it the “most American of American cities,” received warm applause, shook hands, smiled, waved and piled in his motorcade for the drive back to a Danish military air base. His work done, they fired up the engines of Air Force One five hours after it had landed and headed back across the Atlantic, hopeful, encouraged, confident, expectant even.

    Chicago Mayor Richard Daley reportedly was so hopeful, so confident, that he wasn’t at Copenhagen’s Bella Center for the first round of balloting, when the city with the fewest votes is eliminated and the IOC membership votes again among those remaining. The announcement of the winner wasn’t expected for another two hours.

    He got a call en route. Chicago was indeed first.

    First to be eliminated.

    It marked a stunning and swift turnaround, and we’re not talking about Daley’s car flipping a U-ey back to his Copenhagen hotel. How had the United States — the United States of America, the nation that history says saved the Olympics — arrived here?





    Lake Placid, New York. Los Angeles. Atlanta. Salt Lake City.

    Twenty-two years, four Olympics on U.S. grass or snow. And nothing since. And nothing until 2024 at the earliest, the U.S. Olympic Committee having already decided against bidding for the 2020 Summer or 2022 Winter Games. Since 1932, that will mark the longest the Olympics have gone without being in a U.S. city.

    What was most striking, most shocking, about Chicago’s early exit in October 2009 was not that the Olympic movement no longer needed its largest benefactor. It did. The vote came amid the beginnings of a global recession and selected a host city — Rio de Janeiro — with tenuous financial prospects over one offering revenue rivers instead of streams.

    “Every IOC voter knew that Chicago was the most lucrative place to bring the Games,” Doug Logan, the former CEO of USA Track & Field who helped lobby for Chicago, said in the carnage of Copenhagen. “The calculus became: Is this anti-U.S. sentiment strong enough to trump a financial windfall? And today it was.

    “Today the IOC paid a lot of dollars to say no to the U.S.”

    Message received.


    It took nearly a decade to hear, to process, to comprehend the anti-American feelings that have prevented the country from hosting another Games. And it might take another decade or more to fix.

    The future of the Olympic movement in this country likely hinges on it.

    Salt Lake City problems

    Last week, the USOC Chairman Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun indicated for the first time that the United States might, maybe, perhaps consider bidding to host an Olympics again. They plan to issue a formal statement in the next few months outlining things like guiding principles, processes, timelines, next steps, and then start meeting with prospective cities.
    Their words were tinged with hesitation and humility.

    This is what it has come to for the greatest Olympic power the world has known. The five-ringed lake is no longer placid.

    “Los Angeles, Atlanta, Salt Lake — there was a really good run for the United States,” says Ed Hula, longtime editor of Around The Rings, which tracks the Olympics and its fickle politics. “That was a reflection of the influence the United States had in the Olympic movement … Losing 2012 with New York and 2016 with Chicago was symptomatic of how the United States had fallen out of favor, out of touch, and lost support of the voting members of the IOC.

    “The U.S. Olympic Committee, to its credit, has stepped back from the fire and tried to get some of the issues resolved that have blunted its influence.”

    The Copenhagen vote provided the mirror that the USOC either couldn’t or wouldn’t gaze into. They fully expected Chicago to win, or at the very least survive longer than New York did for the 2012 Summer Games, when it was ignominiously eliminated in the second round of balloting. Chicago got 18 votes out of 94 and were out before the coffee got cold at the Bella Center.

    The beans, though, might have been ground far earlier, at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

    They were an efficient, exciting enough Olympics, creating the since-repeated model (Torino, Vancouver) of holding Winter Games in a city sitting at the base of mountains instead of cramming everything into a quaint alpine hamlet. But their enduring legacy is for less savory events: for the bid corruption scandal and subsequent probe that thrust the IOC into turmoil, for the ever-present sight of military officers with machine guns in the wake of 9-11, for the figure skating judging controversy, for a slew of doping positives and stripped medals.

    And for President George W. Bush breaking with sacred IOC protocol and adding nine words to the Opening Ceremony script: “On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation … I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City.”

    It seemed like an innocuous enough touch, a patriotic man making a patriotic statement. But to some in IOC circles, Olympic experts privately said, it reinforced the notion of an egotistic, jingoistic America — with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that the rest of the world was increasingly holding in contempt.

    Revenue-sharing problems

    There was something else, too. Denis Oswald, an IOC member from Switzerland who was a bronze medalist in rowing at the Salt Lake Games, started talking about the revenue-sharing arrangement.

    The deal goes back to 1988, to the glow of a 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games that magically resuscitated an Olympic movement suffocated by bloody student protests (Mexico City, 1968), a terrorist attack on the Athletes Village (Munich, 1972), a financial meltdown (Montreal, 1976), a U.S.-led boycott (Moscow, 1980). The only other city to bid for 1984: Tehran, Iran.

    Then L.A. and organizing chief Peter Ueberroth fundamentally changed the way the Olympics approached sponsorships, and turned a profit.

    “We will never forget,” former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch wrote Ueberroth 25 years later, “that Los Angeles saved the Olympic Games.”

    The 1988 revenue-sharing deal was reworked in 1996, and in theory it lasted in perpetuity. The USOC would receive a 12.75-percent slice of U.S. television rights fees to broadcast the Games, and 20 percent of worldwide Olympic sponsorship dollars. It seemed fair enough, considering that the USOC was (and still is) the only major national Olympic Committee that does not receive government support, and that most of the TV rights fees and nearly all the sponsorship dollars were generated by American companies.

    Oswald, president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, disagreed. And in the 2000s, with a global recession, with growing anti-American sentiment, he found a receptive audience.

    Talks on a new revenue-sharing deal, with Ueberroth as chairman of the USOC, began in 2005 and quickly went nowhere. Soon, the dialogue turned contentious. Oswald sent a 2008 letter to every IOC member and sports federation calling the current contract “no longer morally acceptable.”

    Ueberroth left his USOC post a few months later and fired this salvo in his final address to the board: “Who pays the bill for the world Olympic movement? Starting in 1988, U.S. corporations have paid 60 percent.”

    Probst, a video game magnate, replaced Ueberroth as USOC chairman and has spent the last four years mending fences.

    He and Blackmun shuttered Ueberroth’s USOC international relations office in Irvine and brought the operation in-house to the Colorado Springs headquarters. In May, they brokered a new revenue-sharing agreement from 2020 to 2040.

    The terms: The USOC keeps its current take of Olympic revenues, but gets a smaller cut (7 percent from TV, 10 percent from sponsorships) on anything over that. In addition, the USOC agrees to contribute $15 million to “Games costs” through 2020, and $20 million after that.

    The quid pro quo seems clear. Give a little in TV and sponsorship revenues to the IOC, get a lot from the windfall of hosting an Olympics on U.S. soil.

    Moments after the new deal was announced, IOC Vice President Thomas Bach of Germany approached Probst in the lobby of the Quebec convention center. “Hey, partner,” Bach said. “Congratulations.”

    Or as Probst put it last week: “One of the issues that may have hindered previous bids was the ongoing dispute over revenue sharing between the USOC and IOC. Obviously, we solved that earlier this year. We’ve removed that obstacle.”

    Getting more involved

    There are other issues. The United States, obsessed with football, baseball, NASCAR and other purely American pastimes, held little sway in the politically charged arena of global sport; at one point, just a single international federation had a U.S. president (Don Porter in softball). And the USOC didn’t help matters with its constant upheaval, lurching from one organizational crisis to the next, changing CEOs like socks.

    Which is why Blackmun now sits on the IOC marketing commission and Probst on the IOC international relations commission.

    Why the Americas Best Practices Symposium on National Olympic Committee Management and Sport Performance was in Miami in November, and the IOC Athlete Career Program Forum was in Lake Placid in October. And why FIE, the international governing body for fencing, held its annual conference in Philadelphia last December, the first time in its 99-year history it had been in the United States.

    “I think we have to continue our international outreach,” Probst said, “continue to show up at the meetings, events, competitions, seminars, whatever it happens to be, and build those relationships with those individual IOC members. That responsibility falls on me, on Scott, on our IOC members. I would say that’s Job One now that we’ve solved the revenue-sharing issue.”

    By the time the new revenue-sharing agreement was finalized, it was too late to bid for the 2020 Summer Games (the IOC will choose between Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo in September). Earlier this year, the USOC announced it would sit out the 2022 Winter Games as well.

    That leaves the 2024 Summer and 2026 Winter Games.

    “We had a lot of discussion around Summer versus Winter, or both for that matter,” Probst said after the USOC’s December board meeting, which included a report from a five-person subcommittee examining future Olympic bids. “At the end of the day, we want to put forward a bid that we think we have a high probability of winning. That will continue to be a guiding principle as we go forward and go through the evaluation process. Where do we think we have the best shot of succeeding?”

    A Winter Games, certainly, is easier to get and there are already U.S. locales lining up to bid: Reno/Tahoe, Salt Lake City again, Denver, even Bozeman, Mont. They are cheaper to organize but offer less broad appeal (how many Americans really care about the luge?) and less chance for pre-Games sponsorship dollars to keep the USOC afloat.

    A Summer Games appeals to more Americans but costs exponentially more and is harder to get. You start by convincing a U.S. city, in the throes of a recession, to fork over $70 million or more just for a bid that it might not win and could bankrupt it (see Greece, 2004). The final bill for London is $14.6 billion, almost triple the initial budget.

    Another possibility is to bid for both, with the 2026 Winter Games as Plan B if the 2024 bid fails or no viable city emerges.
    Either way, the USOC has one valuable asset: time. It wouldn’t have to make a decision on 2024 until the third quarter of 2015, and the IOC won’t choose a host city until 2017.

    “Things tend to move incrementally in the Olympic movement,” said Hula, the editor of Around the Rings. “Things don’t happen overnight … But if they do it right, they probably can win because I think there is a legitimate desire to bring the Olympic Games back to the United States.”

    And all indications are that there genuinely is, except for one thing. This is the IOC, a global body of wealthy power brokers who tend to be contrarians. They don’t always do what you think they will.

    “These decisions are made solely on the merits of the bid,” veteran IOC member Dick Pound of Canada said coyly after the Copenhagen vote. “Well, not solely.”