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Abrahamson: Rio the big winner, USOC the prime loser
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Officials from the Rio delegation pose with the Brazilian flag after their victory on Friday.
By: Getty Images

Officials from the Rio delegation pose with the Brazilian flag after their victory on Friday.


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COPENHAGEN -- The map could not have spoken more elegantly. It said the Summer Olympic Games had never been held in South America.

The map was a stroke of genius.

It summarized everything, and without words: The Summer Games had never been held in South America. How could that be? Wasn’t it time to rectify such an obvious injustice?

A year ago, Rio de Janeiro was judged not even as good as Doha, Qatar, in the International Olympic Committee’s initial assessment of the several cities bidding for the 2016 Summer Games.

On Friday, here in Copenhagen, the map speaking with passion and purpose, Rio won those Games -- a historic turn by the IOC with far-reaching consequences.

Because as IOC president Jacques Rogge made plain -- in such a vote, as in the sports that animate the Olympic Games, there can be only one winner. The corollary, upon which Rogge did not elaborate, is just as true -- there are losers, too, and losing badly typically doesn’t go down well.

Rio is the undisputed winner. In the final round, it crushed Madrid, which had been buoyed by a sentimental appeal lodged by former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, 66-32. Now Brazil will play host to soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Games in 2016.

Wiping away tears afterward, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva declared, “Brazil needed these Olympic Games.”

Chicago is the obvious loser but -- not really. Chicago is collateral damage in the complex and contentious relationship between the IOC on the one hand and, on the other, the United States and, especially, the USOC.

For in turning to Rio, the IOC also turned down U.S. President Barack Obama, who had risked some amount of political capital to make the first appearance ever before it by a sitting U.S. president.

The president spoke here just days after addressing the United Nations and acknowledging the emergence over the past eight years of what he called “an almost reflexive anti-Americanism.” He spoke at the UN of “the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change.”

Here, he told the IOC, “No one expects the Games to solve our collective challenges. But we do believe that in a world where we have too often witnessed the darker aspects of our humanity, peaceful competition between nations represents what is best about our humanity.”It brings us together, if only for a few weeks, face to face. It helps us understand one another just a little better. It reminds us that no matter how or where we differ, we all seek our own measure of happiness, and fulfillment, and pride in what we do. And that is a very powerful starting point for progress.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, meanwhile, met here over the past couple days with dozens of IOC members at the Marriott hotel, the IOC base. She, too, appeared Friday in the Chicago presentation to the IOC, and after words such as “partnership” and “together” had been made the hallmark of the Chicago show by others before her, the First Lady said, “It’s about our responsibility as Americans not just to put on great Games, but to use these Games as a vehicle to bring us together; to usher in a new era of international engagement; and to give us hope; and to change lives all over the world.”

The IOC proved unmoved.

Chicago was bounced in the first round with but 18 votes out of 94 cast.

Tokyo, the other 2016 candidate, went out in the second round.

Four years ago, vying for the 2012 Summer Games, New York got 19 votes in round one, 16 in the second.

At least New York made it to the second round. Chicago, the best bid the United States has ever put forward, with a public-private partnership and backing from all three levels of government that clearly reached to the president himself, made like Sonny Liston in the ring with Cassius Clay.


“I was shocked. I was disappointed. I couldn’t believe it,” Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said afterward, and he was hardly the only one.

“Some days you win, some days you don’t,” a stoic Chicago 2016 bid chief Pat Ryan said. “It wasn’t our day to win.”

It’s not clear that any day would do. Not with any American bid hindered by the USOC.

Maybe now it will be more clear despite all that has changed since 2005 just what a handicap New York labored under -- because the one constant, then and now, is the USOC.

To be fair, the USOC understood immediately after that 2005 vote that things had to change. And in the international relations department, it did effect real change -- the USOC bringing in Robert Fasulo to head its outreach and turning as well to Bob Ctvrtlik, perhaps the sole American with extensive experience climbing the ladder of international sport.

The problem is, those aren’t the top positions.

Peter Ueberroth -- some admire and respect him immensely, others find him a polarizing figure -- moved on after his term expired last year as USOC board chairman. Larry Probst came in. Then the USOC board moved to get rid of chief executive Jim Scherr, replacing him with Stephanie Streeter, whose career has not been in the sports business and who almost immediately alienated key American sports federation figures.

To many an international observer, it all meant more churn -- and in particular, more turnover, the sort that has given the USOC half a dozen chairs (or presidents - the title has changed) and five chief executives since 2000. International sports runs on relationships. Turnover is the enemy of relationship building.

In March, the USOC and IOC, locked for years in a dispute over certain marketing and broadcasting revenue shares that go only to the USOC, reached an apparent truce. Then, though, this summer the USOC went ahead unilaterally with plans to launch its own television network -- over a warning from the IOC not to do so.

The aborted launch of the TV network brought back with intensity all the ill will that’s out there about the USOC and, in a general sense, the United States -- feelings that go all the way back to the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, which erupted in 1998, and even beyond.

It’s that sort of enmity that gets you but 18 votes in the first round -- and that now threatens, back home, to let loose recrimination and revenge-seeking.

It’s a good bet that the sports federation leaders, who had been keeping quiet in hopes of supporting the Chicago bid, will stay quiet no longer about what they perceive as shortcomings in Streeter’s leadership.

On a different level, remember this: The USOC is a creature of Congress, chartered in 1978. The president is a Democrat. Congress is now controlled by Democrats. The Democratic contingent from Illinois is likely to be very, very unhappy.

In the long term, it’s impossible to predict how it all plays out, and even -- no drama here, just an acknowledgment of reality -- whether the IOC and USOC can find real common ground, even by 2016, when the athletes of the world congregate in Rio, and what might mean for the future of the Olympic movement.

In the near term, though, two things are crystal clear:

A Summer Games bid from the United States for 2020? That’s got to be a long shot at best, given the thumping that first New York and now Chicago have endured.

And someone’s got to be held accountable.

“I’m going to hold my team at the USOC accountable to perform at the highest levels in service to the Olympic movement,” Streeter said last month at a meeting in Chicago.

It starts with her.