Chicago, Rio lead 2016 Olympics host race

Chicago standard bearers First Lady Michelle Obama (left) and TV star Oprah Winfrey.
The International Olympic Committee was preparing Friday to elect a host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, a prize so sought-after that presidents, sports legends and royalty have turned out to lobby for their country’s candidate city.

Four cities on four continents are in the running as IOC members gather at Denmark’s modern Bella Center convention hall in Copenhagen. Each city will have about an hour to make a final presentation and answer questions before the voting begins Friday evening. The U.S. city of Chicago would have been the front-runner on merits alone, even if U.S. President Barack Obama hadn’t come to Copenhagen to push for his hometown, experts said. The presence of Obama — the first U.S. president to attend an IOC vote — is the talk of the town. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, is also in Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago and has promised, half jokingly, that the “gloves are off.” Also in the running to host the two-week sporting spectacle: Tokyo, Japan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Madrid, Spain. Each will make its presentation in an order determined by the drawing of numbers. All four cities have already had more than a year in the spotlight. They were whittled down from seven possible contenders in June 2008 and have been fiercely promoting their bids ever since. After the cities make their presentations, the IOC members will sit down to cast their votes in a secret ballot. Ninety-seven of the IOC’s 106 members are eligible to vote in the first round; seven must sit out that round because they represent one of the countries bidding for the Games. One other member is currently suspended, and IOC President Jacques Rogge has chosen not to vote.

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A city must receive a majority of votes in order to win. If no city receives a majority, voting moves on to a second round, with the city receiving the lowest number of votes being eliminated, an IOC spokeswoman said. Although Chicago may have an edge, all four cities are strong contenders, experts said. Watch how the Chicago bid is among many things on Obama’s plate “It’s difficult to say who the front-runner is, but we feel that Chicago and Rio are neck and neck,” said Ed Hula, editor of the Olympics Web site Around the Rings. “The influence of President Barack Obama coming to Copenhagen is considered something that could put Chicago ahead. It certainly has given them a lot more attention and a lot more sway.” Not to be outdone, Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia and Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero are planning to push the case for Madrid, according to the Madrid 2016 bid committee. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and soccer legend Pele were expected to join forces to advertise the benefits of a Rio Games. And Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, just two weeks into the job, also planned to be at the vote to demonstrate the government’s full backing of the Tokyo bid, the bid committee said. “It’s not a requirement for heads of state to come to our session,” said the IOC spokeswoman, who asked not to be named. “We are obviously very honored if they decide to come, but there’s no particular requirement.” The presence of Obama — who was born in Hawaii but spent much of his life in Chicago — may give that city the crucial votes it needs if the margins are slim, experts said. “I think it’s going to be important enough to change the opinions of some IOC members,” Hula said. “And if this is a close race, a few votes in favor of Chicago could be decisive.” Chicago has a number of strong points, including a superior technical bid, experts say. The Windy City has better hotels and a better venue lineup than Rio, Hula said. Almost half its proposed 31 venues already exist, and most would be located along the city’s famous lakefront, close to the city center. A Chicago Olympics would also be advantageous to U.S. broadcasters, who provide big revenue streams for the Olympics, said Stephen Samuelson, the head of online sports at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. “An American Games will produce a higher return for the IOC,” said Samuelson. For Rio, the major appeal is in bringing the Olympics to South America for the first time. “It’s certainly the sentimental bid of the four,” Samuelson said. He speculated that IOC members may want to wait on giving Rio the Games until after Brazil hosts the 2014 football World Cup, so they can see how well the country deals with a major international sporting event. But Hula pointed out that Rio’s success in hosting the 2007 Pan American Games gave the city a level of experience that Chicago doesn’t have. Madrid and Tokyo both have “very capable” bids, Hula said, with good transportation infrastructure in each one. Tokyo presents a compact venue plan while a number of venues are already in place in Madrid. “They’re both considered very stable candidacies, places where the Olympics could be held if one of the front-runners is eliminated in the early rounds of voting,” Hula said. Madrid’s chances could be hampered, however, by a recent tradition that consecutive Olympics aren’t staged on the same continent. The London 2012 Olympics will have happened just four years before 2016. “Although there’s no rule against it,” Hula said, “the IOC has yet to award consecutive Summer Games to the same continent since 1952 in Helsinki.” By a similar token, Beijing’s hosting of the Games last year may harm Tokyo’s bid. IOC members who spent many hours traveling to China from Olympic headquarters in Switzerland may be reluctant to start a new series of long-distance trips to Asia just a year after the closing ceremony in Beijing, Hula said. Tokyo’s time zone, half a day ahead of New York, also was unfriendly to North American broadcasters, Samuelson said.

That said, it’s still a close race, with all four cities held in high esteem by IOC members. “There’s no real weak one in the midst of them,” Hula said. “They’re all, I believe, considered strong contenders.”