D.C. might have scared Olympics

Political and diplomatic power could have hurt bid

August 29, 2002|By June Arney and Robert Little | June Arney and Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The Washington-Baltimore bid for the 2012 Summer Games might have been doomed from the start by the very high-profile international perception that draws millions of tourists to the region from around the globe each year.

A day after the U.S. Olympic Committee eliminated the local bid from consideration, experts said that organizers - and even the experts themselves - seem to have misjudged the double-edged sword that Washington's political and diplomatic might can wield. While the city's seat at the center of American politics is typically considered a virtue, it seems to have repelled the Olympics by eliciting visions of bureaucracy and congressional hearings and perhaps even war in the Middle East.

"If that's true, it has to be immensely frustrating for the people on the losing end of the equation," said Rick Burton, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Because it not only means they didn't have a chance, it means they never had a chance, and that all of that money and effort was just wasted."

After spending five years and $9.5 million, Washington and Baltimore's effort to lure the Summer Olympics was rejected by the United States Olympic Committee on Tuesday in favor of bids from San Francisco and New York. An American finalist will be picked in November and will then compete against cities around the world.

Charles Moore, head of the USOC task force that announced the decision in Chicago on Tuesday, noted that it was Washington where former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch was brought to be interrogated by Congress in 1999 over the Salt Lake City Olympic bribery scandal. That could have stuck in the minds of some IOC members, he said.

Burton doesn't consider that questioning a significant factor in the decision to eliminate Washington-Baltimore but said anything is possible.

"The IOC has voting blocs that stretch all the way around the world, alliances among the different continents, members from countries everywhere, so its actions are always hard to predict," Burton said. "But when you say `Washington,' people think `Congress.' And when you say `Congress,' people think of hearings and meetings. And that image might have been enough to do them in."

Awarding the Olympics to Washington is synonymous with handing them to our top political leaders, said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor of sports management and tourism studies at George Washington University.

"If you give the Olympics to Washington, it's like giving them to [President] Bush," she said. "I think the USOC just got scared of the power and politics of Washington. What happens if we start a war and the whole world hates us, and nobody votes for us?"

What people would think of giving the world's largest sports event to the capital of the world's most powerful country has to be asked, she said.

"Is that just too much power in one location?" she asked.

Shortly after the USOC announced its decision Tuesday, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said: "Those geopolitical considerations have to be factored in. It's frustrating, but it's a reality."

Even yesterday, local organizers struggled to make sense of the decision that put an end to their Olympic dream for 2012 - an effort that had been branded a favorite by many experts.

"All along we knew that Washington's image on the world stage would play a role in this," said Dan Knise, president and chief executive of the local bid effort. "But we didn't expect it to come into play now, at the task force level. It's like someone's trying to read the tea leaves for how the IOC's going to feel in 2005, and I think that's difficult to do."

But Knise remained confident that the bid had been executed as well as possible.

"I have no second thoughts," he said. "This team did a great job. We presented a very strong case."

Over the next six to eight weeks, the Washington 2012 group will dissolve and its four full-time employees and one part-time employee will be out of jobs.

If the designated U.S. city does not win in 2012, the USOC is likely to stand by its choice for at least another set of Games, meaning that Washington-Baltimore's next shot wouldn't likely come until 2020, said Neirotti.

And even as San Francisco and New York battle for the designation of U.S. candidate city, expert opinion is split over whether any American city can win the 2012 games - particularly if Vancouver, British Columbia, wins the Winter Games in 2010. The Canadian city was named one of four finalists yesterday - along with Bern, Switzerland; Salzburg, Austria; and Pyongchang, South Korea - by the International Olympic Committee, which makes the final selection of Olympic sites.

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