After today’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be the host of the 2016 Olympics, supporters and opponents of the President immediately began debating his impact on the decision. This was a debate that had been simmering for a week, due in no small part to the revelation that the President had spent considerably less time than one would expect with his U.S. Commander in Afghanistan. His presence in Copenhagen was also not assisted by another devastating round of unemployment numbers announced this morning, bringing U.S. unemployment to the brink of 10%.
So can you blame President Obama for not bringing home the gold? The answer is no, but his arrogance was certainly on full display. Any U.S. President would have been expected to proudly make the sales pitch for Chicago, and America as a whole, but the way President Obama went about it was very indicative of the way he leads on more pressing domestic and international issues.
In 2008, when the President was elected, it was viewed as a net positive to America’s chances in this competition. In fact, ESPN noted that a win by Senator McCain may have made the situation worse, due to his “scathing investigation of the bribery scandal involving IOC members who helped award the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City.” Certainly, IOC members may not have appreciated more scrutiny nor rewarded his oversight in the past. But the Obama team worked hard on their bid, with senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, a former Chicago 2016 Board Member who was replaced by the Obama campaign Treasurer, leading the charge, with a specially designed White House office.
And the first people to tell you about the hard work it took the White House would be the President and Mrs. Obama themselves. The First Lady told boosters this week: “As much of a sacrifice as people say this is for me or Oprah or the president to come for these few days, so many of you in this room have been working for years to bring this bid home.” Has anyone commented on their tremendous sacrifice? They flew several private jumbo jets (carbon footprint?) to beautiful Copenhagen for three days. This is not the sacrifice Americans are familiar with.
Frankly, it was the job of all of these well connected Chicago 2016 White House insiders to let their colleagues know whether a multi-million dollar trip to Copenhagen was worth it. If the United States was running neck and neck with Brazil, there is little doubt the President should have been there. If they were running a close third, then the trip is still probably in the nation’s best interests. But fourth place? The Olympics themselves don’t honor fourth place. Either the White House knew where they stood and arrogantly thought the President could change minds, or they didn’t know, meaning the White House had little or no ability to use dozens of high-profile insiders to gage the temperature of less than 100 IOC voters. Both scenarios are hard to believe.
If the speech was considered the tipping point, how did it go? Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, gave an impassioned speech saying: “It’s time to address this imbalance. The Olympic Games belongs to all people, all continents, all humanity,” referring to the fact that the Olympics had never been held in South America. It wasn’t about Lula, rather it was about an entire culture that felt it could proudly lead these games.
Michelle Obama spoke about her time growing up in Chicago, and passionately spoke of her father’s influence on her love for sports. She said “I” or “me” 26 times in an address that lasted only a few minutes. She closed by saying: “…and to give us hope; and to change lives all over the world. And I’ve brought somebody with me today who knows a little something about change,” and then introduced her husband. Hope. Change. This wasn’t about America, or our culture, this was about the Obamas.
President Obama arrived at the lectern and also included 26 “I’s” or “Me’s” in his speech. Towards the end of the speech, he even had to remind the audience that it wasn’t about him, the individual, after describing the throngs of people who turned out to watch him win the election in November. He talked about why he ran for President. He talked about meeting the First Lady in Chicago.
See, what the President and the First Lady missed is that the Olympics aren’t about change. They’ve had the same running distances, the same sized shot put, the same discus for centuries. Some things don’t need to be changed. Did their inclusion of their familiar campaign rhetoric end our bid? Probably not. The reality is that the choice of who would host the Olympics was most likely not made in the past two days alone. Just as in a presidential election, voters most likely had their preferences before arriving in Copenhagen to vote.
The problem is that the Obamas thought it was about them, until they lost and then it was about something else. Either the White House knew they were coming in fourth and the President thought that much of his oratory skills, or the due diligence of their closest advisors was paltry at best. Either way, let’s hope they don’t keep repeating this scenario on other important issues.
Dan O’Brien was an American decathlete who in 1992, was poised for Olympic Gold. He was so hyped up that he got arrogant. He passed up lower pole vault settings because he thought he could reach the sky on every try. He lost. He was still a world record holder, but now he was also a champion in humility. America loves champions of humility. Congratulations Rio! You earned this.