Why Is Obama Going to Copenhagen?

By lobbying to bring the Olympic Games to Chicago, the U.S. president may only be playing to the IOC's worst tendencies.


Two weeks after Barack Obama stated that he would not be personally lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to grant his adopted city of Chicago the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, the U.S. president suddenly announced that he would make the trip to Denmark after all, in the company of the first lady and various Chicago dignitaries.

The president will spend five hours at the IOC’s host-city selection meeting in Copenhagen on Oct. 2. His appearance will mark the first time an American president has ever taken on this promotional role before the assembled IOC. Given tough competition from Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tokyo — not to mention the unfathomable (and sometimes corrupt) voting habits of the IOC membership — Obama will have his work cut out for him.

The Republican opposition, rather than applauding this symbolic exercise in boosting American prestige, has reproached Obama for investing presidential time in what they characterize as a petty distraction from more serious business. The president, said Rep. Pete  Hoekstra, should "establish some priorities" at a time when he confronts two wars, a bitterly contested health-care debate, and some ominous provocations from the Iranian military. Conservative activist Brent Bozell portrayed Obama’s decision to lobby the IOC as "evidence that this man just cannot stay away from the klieg lights." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, playing the red-white-and-blue card, countered by saying, "Surely, it’s within the purview of the president to root for America" — the sort of gesture that used to be a Republican specialty.

As if to emphasize the transformation of the Olympic Games into the world’s preeminent form of show-business internationalism, the IOC’s Copenhagen meeting has  evolved into an Olympic edition of "Dancing with The Stars." Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will be accompanied by the Spanish Royal Family. Brazilian President Lula da Silva will bring along the soccer immortal and global icon Pélé. Obama was originally planning to send his wife Michelle in the company of media superstar Oprah Winfrey — the first lady of Chicago — and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley will also be in attendance. The openly acknowledged premise underlying all of this star-mongering is that IOC members are as vulnerable to star-power as anyone else, and that celebrity "charisma" may be an indispensable ingredient of success this time around. As one of the IOC’s most senior members, Dick Pound, put it: "I don’t think there’s an IOC member on the planet that wouldn’t love to meet your president. He’s a transformational figure in the world today."

Sheer celebrity may, in fact, be the currency-of-choice in this "post-reform" era of the IOC. It is well known that during the 21-year reign of its former president, Juan Antonio Samaranch (1980-2001), IOC members did much of their voting in response to envelopes of cash and other kinds of secret gratuities they received from representatives of bidding cities. The bribery scandals that resulted from the bidding process for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics dealt a terrible blow to the image of the IOC. The "reforms" that resulted from this public disgrace were supposed to put an end to the corruption that occurred on the watch of an autocratic IOC president (and former Spanish Fascist) who insisted on being addressed as "Excellency."

British investigative reporter Andrew Jennings has documented, over many years, the continuing vulnerability of the IOC membership to bribes and scams of various kinds; and the poorer the country, the more likely its IOC representative can be bought for cash or other benefits the First World has to offer. (Nor, one might add, has the purchase of Third World votes in international bodies been a monopoly of the IOC.)

Veteran observers of the IOC will therefore find it difficult to believe that IOC members were ethically transformed by the reform process that was imposed on them a decade ago. The IOC’s expulsion of 10 of its most obscure members for bribe-taking was of minor significance. Most important, the great majority of today’s IOC members were "elected" under the supervision of Samaranch, whose tastes often ran in the direction of the unwholesome and the ennobled. For example, the royal houses of Europe and the Middle East are conspicuously over-represented in the IOC, all of them through Samaranch’s good graces. The result is an IOC in which real reformers are outnumbered by the royals, the hustlers, and the self-important nonentities.

Understanding what the IOC is and how it operates is essential for assessing the potential value, and the potential hazards, of Obama’s audience before the Olympians. Over the years the IOC has listened to many fawning politicians bent on acquiring the games for their prestige value, and Obama cannot simply assume that his unique "transformational" charisma will carry the day. At the same time, there is no doubt that Obama has learned to talk the required Olympic talk. The White House statement that proclaimed the United States "is eager to bring the world together to celebrate the ideals of the Olympic movement" is exactly the sort of diplomat-ese boilerplate that allows the Olympians to play at transcendent geopolitical importance.

All of this makes Obama’s Olympic mission a political gamble both at home and abroad. If he pulls it off and brings the games to Chicago, he will add a gleaming, but low-carat, gem to his crown. For there is nothing that fades more quickly from the American mind than a quadrennial Olympiad. If he fails, the right wing will pillory him as a dilettante who should have kept his eye on weightier affairs of state. Nor would a "loss" to the president of Brazil or the prime minister of Spain do much for Mr. Obama’s international stature. All of this suggests that Obama should have left well enough alone and stayed at home.

But what if a politician of global stature could know in advance that his mission to the IOC would succeed? What, for example, might Vladimir Putin have known when he traveled to Guatemala City in 2007 to lobby for Russia’s bid for the 2014 Winter Games? Would an authoritarian of Putin’s stature have risked political embarrassment to lobby on Sochi’s behalf? It is very unlikely that Putin had reached a secret understanding with IOC President Jacques Rogge, who is neither a strong executive nor an authoritarian fixer in the mold of Samaranch. At the same time, Putin the ex-KGB operative may have had good intelligence about how the vote was shaping up before his plane left Moscow — and there’s always the chance that Obama is making his plans based on similar clues.

Even so, let Obama be forewarned. The IOC’s bidding competitions do not reward political virtue or any other kind of good intentions, as their award of the 2014 games to the gravedigger of Russian democracy makes abundantly clear. They reward those who promise to bring further celebrity and an aura of dignity to the IOC. The portable ice-rink Putin brought to Guatemala City was an extravagance that was calculated to set certain wheels spinning inside Olympian minds — the promise of gaudy spectacle and, perhaps, a hint of improbable piles of cash that would somehow overflow their coffers into certain pockets. This is how the Olympic bidding game has always been played, and one wonders whether the good world citizen Obama may have gotten into this one way over his head.

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