COPENHAGEN – Rio or Chicago? Risk vs. reliable.
For the International Olympic Committee, the biggest decision in choosing the city to host the 2016 Games is what statement it wants to send the world.
Does it make the bold, transformational choice of Rio de Janeiro, giving the Olympics to South America for the first time? Or does it play it safe and head for the familiar shores of the United States and, perhaps, a more lucrative games?
“Policy wise, the IOC has to decide if we’re ready to go to a new continent,” longtime IOC member Dick Pound said recently. “That’s the biggest paradigm shift. Is the time right?”
Rio certainly thinks so.
The city didn’t even make the finals when it bid for the Olympics in 2004 and 2012. Now, however, Brazil has one of the world’s largest economies and its international stature is growing. South America is also home to 400 million people, bid committee leader Carlos Arthur Nuzman said, a population that could ensure the Olympic movement’s legacy for generations to come.
And, Rio leaders say, given any chance they get, it is time.
When Rio traveled to Switzerland in June to present its bid to IOC members, the highlight of its passionate appeal was a large map showing where all the Olympics have been held. Dots blanketed Europe, Asia and North America.
The entire South American continent was bare.
“The Olympic movement is a global movement, so it has to be global. It has to go to all the continents, all the countries, all the areas of the world,” Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said Tuesday. “We’re pretty emotional here at this moment because we know it’s a very important moment for a city that has a lot to give. It’s going to change forever the Olympic movement.”
IOC members acknowledge there is large appeal in going somewhere new. That Rio’s plan is technically strong only strengthens its case, making it a slight favorite over Chicago ahead of Friday’s vote.
Madrid and Tokyo both seem to have faded, done in largely by geography. Though the IOC doesn’t have an official continental rotation, European cities are hosting the 2012 and ’14 games, while last year’s Beijing Olympics are still fresh in members’ minds.
Of course, for all the handicapping, nothing is ever as certain as it seems.
The vagaries of the IOC’s voting system make it that any of the four could go out in the first round, and ballrooms across the globe are littered with supposed favorites who didn’t win the ultimate prize. In fact, the key to victory often depends on picking up those second- and third-choice votes.
The city receiving the fewest votes is eliminated after each round until one candidate has a majority. The vote is expected to go the maximum three rounds.
And Rio is not without its drawbacks.
Though the homicide rate in the city of 6 million dropped to 33 per 100,000 people last year from 39 per 100,000 the year before, that’s still well above Chicago, Madrid or Tokyo. Major highways, including one that links the international airport to the beaches, are periodically shut down by shootouts.
Rio also has to convince the IOC that it can pay for $11 billion worth of infrastructure projects and complete them on time — on top of staging the World Cup just two years earlier. Hosting the world’s two largest sporting events back-to-back could prove to be a marketing challenge, with advertisers deciding they have the money for one or the other, not both.
Then again, FIFA’s endorsement might be what’s needed to convince IOC members that now is the right time.
“It’s a big, sophisticated international federation, so maybe that’s a signal,” Pound said.
More like a loud alarm, Rio said.
“It’s the absolute historical moment for our country, for our continent, for our state,” said Sergio Cabral, governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro.
But what if it’s not?
While Chicago doesn’t have the international flair of, say, Los Angeles, New York or even San Francisco, it is an American bid and those are the ultimate security blanket for the IOC. Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City all staged successful games that made money. Lots of it, in Los Angeles and Salt Lake.
Chicago may not have the architectural masterpieces that typically define a host city, but its plan to use city parks and existing or temporary venues also makes it less vulnerable to the massive cost overruns that London and Vancouver have seen. Its bid committee is run by insurance magnate Pat Ryan, who didn’t get rich by making bad decisions, and is filled with people who worked on the Sydney and Salt Lake games.
And by returning to the United States for its first Summer Games since 1996, the IOC will have an attractive property for American advertisers and broadcasters. That’s no small thing, considering the IOC’s largest chunk of revenue comes from its $2.2 billion deal with NBC to broadcast the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. Negotiations for the U.S. TV rights to the 2014 and 2016 games won’t begin until after the vote, and the IOC can expect that a Chicago games will increase both the number of bids and dollar amounts attached to them.
There is also the Obama factor.
President Barack Obama is a popular figure overseas, an adopted son of Chicago and an ardent supporter of the city’s bid and the Olympic movement. So much so he is taking a few hours away from all-important health care reform to come to Copenhagen for Chicago’s final presentation, the first sitting U.S. president to personally lobby the IOC at a host city vote.
Although Ryan is thrilled Obama will be part of the final presentation, he cautions that it isn’t a contest of heads of state. “This is really about cities that would be the best host city for the games,” Ryan said.
Obama is just one of four big name leaders being brought in by the cities. Rio will have Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Madrid will have King Juan Carlos, and Japan will have new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
“We believe we can make a great impact on the future of the Olympics,” said David Robinson, one of the original Dream Teamers. “That’s no comment against the other great cities. We just feel like we bring some great things to the table.”
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