President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle sought to inject momentum into the faltering campaign by their home city of Chicago to host the 2016 Olympic Games by staging an event for US athletes at the White House on Wednesday.
With less than three weeks before the International Olympic Committee meets in Copenhagen to elect a host city, Chicago has seen its standing as frontrunner in the four-horse race slip away, damaged by doubts about financial guarantees and wrangles between US Olympic officials and the IOC.
Chicago’s bid appeared well set when the city’s favourite son assumed the presidency in January. The new US climate of consensus-building, the president’s ties to the city and a sense in the Olympic movement that returning the games to the US was overdue all boded well for Chicago’s bid.
But after a summer of setbacks, anxious bid leaders need a game-changing play. They want the president to take time out from his healthcare reform schedule to fly to Copenhagen on October 2, the day of the vote, to work his charm on the 100-plus IOC membership.
On Friday, the White House announced that Mrs Obama would make the trip, but that the healthcare debate “keeps [the president] from committing at this time to travel to Copenhagen”.
Mr Obama on Wednesday all but ruled out a visit to Copenhagen at a Washington event in support of Chicago’s bid. “I promise you, we are fired up about this,” he said. “I would make the case in Copenhagen personally if I weren’t so firmly committed to making real the promise of quality, affordable healthcare for every American. But the good news is, I’m sending a more compelling superstar to represent the city and country we love, and that is our first lady, Michelle Obama.”
Such a commitment is no more than IOC members have come to expect from world leaders.
Tony Blair, when he was UK prime minister, made a trip to support London’s 2012 bid. So did Vladimir Putin, to back Sochi’s claim to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The bid teams of Rio and Madrid will come to Copenhagen, with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, and the King of Spain in their entourages. Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s new prime minister, may make the trip on Tokyo’s behalf.
Richard Pound, an IOC member, said a no-show by Mr Obama would be risky for Chicago’s bid.
“The risk is, your competitors are going to say, ‘Oh well, he’s too busy to come, but he sent his wife’.”
Patrick Ryan, chief executive of the Chicago 2016 bid, was keen on the president making the trip but said he did not believe his absence would go down badly with the IOC.
“The president has demonstrated many, many times his support not only for our bid but for the Olympic movement,” he said.
A factor in the White House’s calculation will be the potential embarrassment if the president goes to Copenhagen only for Chicago’s bid to fail.
That possibility increased in recent weeks as the city got into a tangle over who would underwrite the games if its $4.8bn (€3.3bn, £2.9bn) budget overran.
US law prevents Washington from giving financial backing to the Olympics. Under pressure from the IOC and in the face of rival bids underwritten by national governments, Richard Daley, Chicago’s mayor, pledged that the city would guarantee any losses from the games.
“The city tried to make a different arrangement, but it was told by the IOC that it was expected to sign a guarantee like everybody else,” said Manuel Flores, an alderman from Chicago’s north side.
Although previous US summer Olympics have proved profitable, taxpayers are worried they will be left with a bill at a time when the city’s finances are in a poor state. Mr Daley has ordered the city to shut municipal services for three days this year to save $8m.
In a recent Chicago Tribune poll, 84 per cent of respondents opposed using public funds to cover any shortfall in the Olympics budget.
The survey also suggested that support for the games had dropped to 47 per cent, a figure almost as high as the 45 per cent who oppose the bid. Previously, there had been twice as many supporters as opponents.
“It’s riskier for Chicago than the other candidate cities because we don’t have access to the large national funding schemes that the other bidders have,” said Joe Schwieterman of DePaul University in Chicago.
“This city simply can’t afford to let the worst-case scenario happen.”
The behaviour of the US Olympic Committee has also infuriated members of the IOC. The USOC announced plans in July for an Olympic television network, undercutting the IOC’s negotiations for future TV rights. The USOC has since agreed to delay its launch.