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Obama vs. the IOC’s Hapsburgs: Our guy had no chance

Rarely – maybe never – have the old world geo-politics crafted so brilliantly at the Congress of Vienna played a bigger role in a sporting issue than in the 2016 Olympic Games fiasco which, in the end, played the president of the United States, no less, for a sucker.

The giddy production held in the appropriately make-believe medieval town of Copenhagen featured the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in its truest historical form. Someone should have reminded Barack Obama that the daddies and granddaddies of these gilded dudes are the characters who once famously fell in love with Adolf Hitler.
More than seven decades have since come and gone, but the IOC gang hasn’t changed all that much. They saw Mr. Obama coming and they were ready for him. He never had a chance.  To them, he was just another rookie wanta-be.

The high profile presidential ramble to Denmark was, of course, designed to clinch the case for Chicago as the host city of the ’16 Games. Bringing to bear the prestige of the world’s mightiest office, and with it the implicit total support of the world’s most powerful nation along with the de facto promise of vast American riches to float every last Olympiad whim, was widely deemed an overwhelming package by those who think the IOC lives in the real world.

Adding to the bitter irony, at least in this country, is the fact that Chicago had been widely favored to win as the convoluted proceedings arrived in Copenhagen for the final showdown. Chicago was thought by those who make a living studying these things to have presented by far the best argument backed by the most support and firmest financial guarantees and therefore had the best chance to deliver on its promise. Interestingly, of the four finalists, the case for Rio de Janeiro was considered the weakest, with Madrid and Tokyo wavering somewhere between the two extremes. Which is why veteran observers of the Machiavellian antics of the IOC were betting all along that Rio would win it.

Because the IOC can do whatever it darn well pleases. It always has and it always will. It’s answerable to no one. Roughly half of the 106 members are Europeans who form a highly privileged clique of aristocratic has-beens who have never quite been able to swallow the consequences of the French Revolution.  

They don’t like new money. They don’t like to be big-footed. And the perception that in the end the Americans can ride in and buy whatever they dang please really makes them squirm. Not only can the IOC do what it pleases, but it will always look for a chance to slam it to those they consider uppity, like us! They are what’s left of the Hapsburgs, and they know how to play hardball.

For all such reasons it was probably a mistake for Mr. Obama to stick his neck out as he did; both a tactical miscue, for it clearly did the cause no good, and a personal misstep, for it may have cost him precious political capital both at home and abroad. At least this is what those who study the presidency for a living are claiming, although I suspect it’s a bit of a reach.

More to the point, did he really have a choice? Had he not gone all the way and given it his best shot , he would have been roundly scorned for snubbing his friends and falsely blamed for losing the bid. You don’t turn your back on your base; not in sports and certainly not in politics. In the end, he was darned if he did and darned if he didn’t. So what else is new?

Still, there are political pundits who are saying he risked too much for too little, that he can’t afford to adopt every cause that comes down the pike, that he should understand the limits of his celebrity, and that he ought to have avoided needless embarrassment in the middle of an intense political season barreling toward a historic health-care showdown. They appear to believe it has cost him some crucial points.

But that’s political stuff and this issue was all about the never-never land of sports where the rules of engagement are very different. Most Americans know the difference, even if it somehow eludes the pundits.

This president is a man who loves games – all the games – and he saw the Olympics as the ultimate contest and loftiest prize. The point is debatable. It’s not clear that hosting this quadrennial mess is remotely worth the effort let alone the price. But he buys into it and he’s not alone. It would have been a monumental spectacle and huge party for all of America and it would have capped Chicago’s claim to international stature and that toddling town happens to be his town, keep in mind. It was perfectly natural and appropriate for him to do it. Had a Kennedy acted comparably in our town, given the circumstances, you’d have stood up and cheered. It is the way of things.   

Moreover, the man cares deeply about sport. Given what we’ve seen in his first nine months on the job, Mr. Obama is very swiftly establishing himself as the most avid and sincere “Chief Jock” we’ve ever had, and that is a mouth-full because since Dwight Eisenhower, every president – save perhaps for LBJ – has had sporting passions that they were eager to display as evidence of having the common touch.

Ike, a fine football player in his youth, was a capable golfer on into his twilight.  Gerry Ford was an All-American. Ronald Reagan pretended to be George Gipp. Keen on fitness, Jimmy Carter punished himself on long distance runs. The Bush boys were baseball guys, with Daddy being captain at Yale and Junior owning the Rangers. We’ll pass on Bill Clinton’s games, but his beau ideal, Jack Kennedy, tried everything and would have played everything if only his health had allowed. Most ardent of the jocks, though, was Dick Nixon. He freely gave advice to pro football coaches, once yearned to be commissioner of baseball, and doubtless would have eventually landed that job had he only managed a more graceful exit from his presidency.  

But if the competition is strong, Mr. Obama will hold the distinction before he’s done. As a campaigner, he wowed the media by dropping three-pointers with his left-handed set shot whenever he got the chance. He bowls, swims, and tries to play golf. His elaborate handicapping of the NCAA basketball tourney last spring was televised live. He nearly upstaged the baseball all-star game this summer and jived with the stars like one of the guys. His grand appearance at a Super Bowl is inevitable. The NFL won’t rest until it gets equal time. He even does the occasional sports talk show, which may be going too far.  It’s clear he’s destined to be the all-time “Chief Jock.” Which is why his pitch for Chicago being so curtly snubbed may seem a personal rebuff. But it probably isn’t.
The IOC and the U.S Olympic poobahs have been at odds many times over the many decades and they are currently feuding more bitterly than usual. There are lots of issues mainly having to do –surprise – with money. They include huge and touchy issues like revenue sharing and lucrative broadcasting rights. Tensions recently mounted when the IOC dropped those precious and most favored American games, baseball and softball, from the Olympic program.  It has been getting nasty.

It is into this hornet’s nest that Mr. Obama wandered, rather innocently. He’ll get over it. We all will. And the IOC will go on doing what it dang well pleases.

Although maybe in the end we may all recognize that it is fine and proper for South America to have the games for the first time even if there remains legitimate doubt about Rio’s ability to host them adequately. In time that, too, will be accepted. But then, there is no choice.