Olympics: Obama at the center of another election

CHICAGO (AP) - The crowd at President Barack Obama's victory rally stretched from one end of Grant Park to the other, spilling onto nearby sidewalks and streets. From Oprah Winfrey to blue-collar workers, downtown pulsed with elation and electricity.

Almost a year after he won the presidential election, Obama is at the center of another potentially transformative vote - one that could change his old neighborhood forever.

Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics doesn't have a gleaming architectural masterpiece like the Bird's Nest in Beijing. Its maps showing how very close athletes will be to their venues are impressive, but not exactly sexy.

What Chicago does have is Obama, a charismatic and well-regarded figure internationally whose house (his permanent one, not the one where he currently lives) is a short walk from the planned Olympic stadium.

Obama is still deciding whether to travel to Denmark ahead of the International Olympic Committee's Oct. 2 vote to award the 2016 Games. In the meantime, he's working the phones and sending letters to IOC members in support of his adopted hometown. He's also sending his wife, Michelle, one of the few people to rival her husband's popularity, to Copenhagen along with top adviser and fellow Chicagoan Valerie Jarrett.

But it's the possibility of Obama's presence that looms largest over the all-important vote.

"He's a fabulous ambassador for the United States and his own city," said Dick Pound, a longtime IOC member from Canada. "He's a transformational figure in the world today. The fact that he would be there and you could meet him and then he'd get up and say, 'I'm here to say the United States of America is behind these games,' it's a big difference."

Maybe all the difference.

Rio de Janeiro is considered a slight favorite over Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo, with some IOC members enticed by the idea of taking the Olympics to South America for the first time. But the race is so tight the winner likely will be decided by only a couple of votes, and heads of state have been instrumental in recent decisions.

"I always believed that it's to our advantage to have the president there because he's so highly esteemed," Chicago 2016 chairman Patrick Ryan said. "But I also believe that most IOC members, before they go into the room to vote, know who they're going to vote for."

News on Tuesday that federal officials have issued security bulletins to police around the nation about terrorists' desire to attack stadiums, entertainment complexes and hotels is expected to have little, if any, impact. Security issues are hardly unique to the United States, and the Salt Lake City Games were staged less than six months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite being the nation's third-largest city, Chicago was considered a longshot simply to win approval from the U.S. Olympic Committee to bid for the 2016 Games. It's not an international destination like Los Angeles, the other finalist in the U.S. race, and many overseas know little about it. Or if they do, it's straight out of "The Untouchables" or Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

But Chicago's organizers put together a team of Olympic veterans, using their knowledge and experience to create a plan that has few obvious flaws. And, at $4.8 billion, it carries the lowest price tag of any of the four cities.

"I think this is potentially the best bid we've ever put together," said Stephanie Streeter, acting CEO of the USOC.

Chicago's strength lies in its simplicity, a compact plan that keeps athletes close to their venues and won't saddle residents with pricey arenas that are of little use once the games are finished.

Most of the 31 venues are clustered downtown along picturesque Lake Michigan, putting 90 percent of the athletes within 15 minutes of their competition sites. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the ride from the stadium site to the village took just seven minutes - without the benefit of Olympic traffic lanes.

"For athletes, that is a huge thing," said Bart Conner, a Chicago native who won two gold medals in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics. "I know every city is going to say, 'We're an athlete-centered bid.' But Chicago, they considered the athletes from the get-go."

Fans, too. It's only a short walk from many venues to the city's top restaurants, shops and hotels. If fans tire of sporting events, they can wander through Millennium Park or the city's Museum Campus, home to the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium.

"We have made the city the icon instead of a particular venue," said Doug Arnot, Chicago 2016's operations chief. "It's the whole backdrop: the lake, the parks, the skyline, having green and water around the venues as opposed to concrete."

Overblown budgets are as much a part of the Olympics as the five rings, but Chicago organizers insist their plan protects against that. By using park space and existing or temporary venues, they are limiting the massive construction projects that are the main culprit for overruns. Fifteen venues already exist, nine will be temporary and another six will be scaled down after the games.

This includes the Olympic stadium, which will become an amphitheater-like space with 2,500 to 3,500 seats that could be expanded again to host, say, an international track meet.

The Olympic village is priced at $1 billion, though developers will essentially pay that bill. The site, a shuttered hospital, is considered key to reviving a disadvantaged neighborhood on the near South Side, and will be built regardless of whether Chicago gets the games.

Chicago organizers also worked closely with the international sports federations so venues could be changed before final plans were submitted to the IOC, not after the Oct. 2 decision. Cycling, for example, was moved to Madison, Wis., because the initial road course in suburban Chicago was considered too easy.

The knocks on Chicago's bid are largely out of organizers' control.

The USOC had a messy shakeup in March, and turnover there has been a longtime annoyance to the IOC. The USOC didn't help matters when it announced plans for its own television network, putting it in competition with NBC - which just happens to provide the IOC with its largest chunk of revenue through a $2.2 billion deal to broadcast the 2010 and 2012 Olympics.

The USOC backed down, and chairman Larry Probst also brokered a truce over the United States' share of Olympic revenues. IOC president Jacques Rogge has said the issues won't affect Chicago's bid, but the tensions could be a factor for some members.

Of course, all of that could be forgotten if Obama goes to Copenhagen.

"I believe we have an historic opportunity to do great things together," Obama wrote in a letter sent to IOC members, "and I look forward to discussing that opportunity with you, if not in Copenhagen, then soon thereafter if Chicago is your choice."

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