Thursday, October 01, 2009

Tension mounts, tempers fly ahead of 2016 Olympic host city vote

The International Olympic Committee is no stranger to tough decisions. It took the risk of sending the games to Beijing and said “No” to New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet, despite all of that accumulated experience, some IOC members are struggling with their latest conundrum: choosing the Olympic host for 2016.

Just two days ahead of the vote, many were undecided.

And that means two things—it’s still too close to call between Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid and, for the next couple of days, IOC members are going to feel that they are the most popular people on the planet. Everyone in Copenhagen, where they are gathered, seemingly wants to be their new best friend.

Want to meet Michelle Obama? Not a problem if you’re an IOC member who needs a little pointer on which way to vote. The first lady, beating her husband to the Danish capital, has a two-room suite in the IOC hotel, with homely white leather furniture and an interactive table that, at the touch of a hand, gives bird’s eye views of how a Chicago Olympics might look.

Mrs Obama arrived Wednesday, two days ahead of the U.S. leader, and got straight to work on impressing IOC members.

“We’re not taking anything for granted, so I’m going to go talk to some voters,” she said.

IOC members who have been through this selection process repeatedly, previously sending the games to London, Beijing, Athens and Sydney, told The Associated Press that they could not remember a tougher choice. The AP canvassed the opinions of a dozen IOC members. With all four cities seen as amply capable, technically at least, of holding the Olympics, they said much will ride on how well or badly the cities make their case in final 45-minute presentations to the IOC on Friday before the successive rounds of secret balloting.

“I have two favorites,” IOC member Nicole Hoevertsz said. “It’s going to come down to the last, last presentation. It’s going to come down to the last minute.”

As tension mounted, so did tempers. Despite fresh IOC warnings that the cities should avoid criticizing their rivals, the Spanish Olympic Committee’s vice president, Jose Maria Odriozola, told the national Efe news agency that “Rio is the worst bid.”

Rio bid organizers said the criticism was “totally unacceptable” and formally complained to the IOC.

The outcome Friday could hinge on which cities are eliminated first and, if and when their favorites are knocked out, how IOC members subsequently line up behind the other candidates. That makes predicting a winner perilous and means that even members who say they already have made their choice are still worth lobbying.

“It is difficult enough to know where the first-round votes are going to go, so trying to imagine where the swinging votes are going to go is impossible,” said Spanish IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, whose father served as IOC president for 21 years.

“Events in the next 48 hours will decide the winner, because they will have a significant influence on the second- and third-round votes,” he said.

Samaranch said he believes nearly all the IOC’s 106 members already have a favorite. But IOC vice president Chiharu Igaya said “many” members are undecided.

Added British IOC member Craig Reedie: “This is really close. The closer it gets the more people will say, let me think about it. We all want to see the presentations. It’s what people see that will count. Decided? No, I haven’t actually. I’m getting close.”

Late, high-powered lobbying can be important—as then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, proved when London campaigned successfully for the 2012 Olympics. Blair traveled to Singapore ahead of the vote and spent two days lobbying members, inviting them to his hotel suite for one-on-one meetings.

Chicago tore a leaf from Blair’s playbook: Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett met with him last week to solicit his advice and get tips on navigating the IOC voting process.

But for the first time, there are no IOC executive board meetings in the days leading up to the vote. That means less opportunity for schmoozing.

IOC votes can be highly unpredictable. Aside from the paramount questions of whether bidding cities’ Olympic plans are technically and financially feasible, emotion, sentiment, geography, politics, self-interest and other factors also play a role.

In Copenhagen, there’s also the star factor, with Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva already here to lend heavyweight backing to their cities and President Barack Obama jetting in for a few hours on Friday to bolster Chicago’s presentation.

Willi Kaltschmitt, an IOC member since 1988, said the VIP presence would reassure voters that cities’ bids are fully backed by their governments but would be only one of many factors.

Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper said after meeting with Mrs Obama, however, that she and the U.S. leader “could have an influence on marginal votes.”

IOC members used to visit candidate cities but that was stopped because of concerns about bribery. Now, they rely on IOC reports, presentations and lobbying to inform their decisions.

“Since we’re not allowed to visit the cities, it comes down to the very, very little details,” Hoevertsz said.

Ultimately, the choice may hinge on whether IOC members want to make a bold statement by sending the Olympics to South America for the first time or chose more familiar territory. The United States, Spain and Japan have all previously held the Summer Games. Chicago could also be seen as more lucrative in these tough economic times.

“One of the things that is very important to us now is the economic recession,” said IOC member Nat Indrapana, adding that when cities made their cases to the IOC in June, “Chicago made a beautiful presentation.”

The city receiving the fewest votes will be eliminated after each round until one candidate secures a majority. The vote is expected to go the maximum three rounds.

IOC member Samih Moudallal said it will be like choosing between “four sons or your brothers.”

“How do you choose between your brothers?” Moudallal said, adding that he has yet to make his selection. “You have to use your mind and your heart together.

“It’s a very difficult choice.”