It started with a jaw-dropping first-round defeat for Chicago, the United States and President Barack Obama. It ended with an overwhelming final-round rout for Rio de Janeiro, South America and Brazil’s own charismatic president.
Friday’s decision by the International Olympic Committee to send the 2016 Summer Games to Rio was not a big surprise in itself, considering the Brazilian city’s strong and passionate case for taking the Olympics to South America for the first time.
But the vote played out in a way that no one could have predicted or imagined.
“Stunned” and “shocked” was how many IOC members described themselves when the result of the first round of the electronic secret ballot was read out by committee president Jacques Rogge: Chicago was eliminated!
Chicago had long been considered a front-runner, if not the favorite, to get the games. The decision by Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to travel to Copenhagen to pitch their city’s case in person to the IOC had been seen as a potential game-changing coup to seal the deal over Rio, Madrid and Tokyo.
Yet, Chicago wound up with the fewest votes of the four cities in the first round, partly it seems due to a late sympathy surge for Tokyo, which had widely been expected to drop out first.
Madrid led the first round with 28 votes, followed by Rio with 26. Tokyo got 22 votes, while Chicago finished last with 18.
For many members, Chicago fell victim to a fluke in the voting system, rather than a direct rebuke.
“The only thing I can think of is that there was an Asian bloc voting in sympathy for Tokyo in the first round,” senior Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper said. “I can only believe that it was an accident or a mishap of group voting. I honestly don’t think there was a group that would deliberately seek to insult the U.S. president and first lady in the first round.”
Added IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg: “Either it was tactical voting, or a lot of people decided not to vote for Chicago whatever happened. Nobody knows, but everybody is in a state of shock. Nobody believes it. I’m very sorry about it. We will have to spend some time evaluating what happened.”
But there were other underlying factors at play in Chicago’s early elimination, namely lingering anti-American sentiment in the European-dominated IOC. Much of this stems from tensions with the U.S. Olympic Committee over its extra share of Olympic television and marketing revenues.
The IOC and USOC reached a truce on the revenue issue in March, but some members are still not convinced of the American body’s willingness to compromise. The USOC also ruffled IOC feathers recently by announcing the creation of its own Olympic television network. The USOC eventually put the project on hold, but the damage may have been done.
“It was a defeat for the USOC, not for Chicago,” said IOC board member Denis Oswald of Switzerland, a longtime critic of the USOC revenue share. “So now they have to think for the future. They realize that apparently they have a problem. We want them to be fully part of the family and they probably have to take some steps.
“All that has happened with USOC has not helped,” Oswald added. “All the changes, having new people within USOC. You could feel some differences of opinion between Chicago and USOC. They tried at the end to give the impression they were united, but we know perfectly well.”
The three remaining cities advanced to the second round, and that’s where the election turned firmly and clearly in Rio’s favor.
Rio got 46 votes — meaning the city picked up 20 votes from the first round, including presumably all 18 that had gone to Chicago. Tokyo actually dropped two votes for a total of 20. Madrid picked up one more to reach 29.
With no city yet obtaining the required majority for victory, the vote went to the final head-to-head round between Rio and Madrid. It was no contest as the Latin Americans rallied behind Rio as it crushed Madrid 66-32.
“I think we have sent out a message that we want to go global, we want universality,” Heiberg said.
It was all so different than most IOC members had envisioned. Rogge himself had recently predicted the result would come down to a “couple of votes,” saying it could be even closer than in 2005 when London beat Paris 54-50 in the final round to secure the 2012 Olympics. That might have been the case Friday had the vote come down to Chicago-Rio, but no one will ever know.
Whether Chicago could have beaten Rio anyway in the final also now seems doubtful.
“I think most people at the end of the day might have expected a Chicago-Rio final and might not have been surprised if Rio just edged that,” British member Craig Reedie said.
It was a humiliating result for Chicago just hours after Obama had become the first American president to appear at an IOC host city vote. He and his wife, Michelle, spoke about their love for his adopted home and her native city, but it wasn’t enough.
“They (Obamas) were well received, they were welcomed,” Gosper said. “That’s what’s stunned me. There is no evidence other than a positive reaction to their presence. The whole thing doesn’t make sense other there has been a stupid bloc vote. To have the president of the United States and his wife personally appear, then this should happen in the first round is awful and totally undeserving.”
Some members criticized the Chicago presentation as being flat and dull, apart from the Obamas’ appearance. Even the president’s pitch wasn’t seen as inspiring as some had expected.
“Objectively seen, he didn’t do too much,” French member Guy Drut said. “Michelle Obama was exceptional. She held a really great speech.”
Chicago also went first in the presentations, starting early in the morning and losing some of the impact by the time of the vote late in the day. The Obamas also left before the actual vote.
Rio’s victory was a personal triumph for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who spoke passionately about the need to hold the games in Brazil and South America after so many times in Europe, North America and Asia. He stayed until the result was announced, hugged members of the bid team and wiped away tears at a news conference.
It was also a reward for persistence: Rio was bidding for a third time, including a failure to make the cut of finalists for the 2012 Olympics.
“I was not running against Obama,” Silva said. “Brazil won due to the fact that we lost many times in the past and the U.S. has had many games. Maybe they didn’t dedicate themselves the way we did. Defeat has taught us a lot. We learned a lot. It was not that Lula won and Obama lost. Rio won because it presented the best bid.”