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Olympic-sized letdown in Chicago

The city is stunned as the international committee names Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, despite a last-minute pitch from President Obama.

October 03, 2009|Stacy St. Clair and Peter Nicholas

CHICAGO AND AIR FORCE ONE — The crowd came for a party. Wearing orange 2016 T-shirts, an estimated 10,000 people filled Daley Plaza in the heart of the city with chants of "Chi-ca-go! Chi-ca-go!"

Then the announcement stunned them into silence. Chicago -- the city expected to compete mightily with Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Games -- had been knocked out in the first round of voting.

"I am dumbfounded; utterly speechless," said David Long, who moments before had predicted victory. "I have no clue what just happened."

In a scene that played out at deflated fetes across the city and suburbs, Daley Plaza spectators grappled with Olympic-sized disappointment and a stinging rejection from the international community.

It's one thing to be the Second City. It's something altogether different to be the fourth -- behind Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo.

"As a Chicago sports fan, you get used to disappointment," said resident Aubrey Matthews. "This hurts so much more. I thought the city had done such a fabulous job."

Some people cried. Others closed their eyes and shook their heads. Many stood with their mouths open, staring at those around them in disbelief.

The announcement dashed the hopes of U.S. boosters -- President Obama chief among them -- who had put their reputations on the line to help win the games for Chicago.

It was a major disappointment for the president, who was already facing Republican criticism that his quick dash to Denmark was a frivolous waste of time. Obama has found his public support slumping amid the recession, the war in Afghanistan and the controversial effort to overhaul the healthcare system.

Aides had been divided over whether Obama should travel to Copenhagen. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was dubious about Obama making such a trip when Congress had yet to pass a healthcare bill, according to Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). But other White House aides and Chicago-based friends of the president were deeply involved in the Olympics push, including senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.

What's more, Chicago isn't any other U.S. city; it's the president's adopted hometown.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, took part in Chicago's formal presentation to the International Olympic Committee. The president spent about 20 minutes schmoozing with delegates during a recess -- to no avail.

The decision from the committee came as Obama and the first lady were headed back to Washington, just hours after their last-minute appeal.

"The president is disappointed, as you might imagine," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on the flight home. "But he continues to believe -- and we heard this from a number of people -- that Chicago had a very strong if not the best bid."

The assessment was little consolation to a city that was once confident of its Olympic chances.

At Daley Plaza, the disappointed masses searched for an explanation.

They chastised the media for stories critical of the bid, and some lashed out at Michael Jordan for not traveling to Copenhagen to show his support. Others blamed anti-American sentiment, local opposition groups, and the videotaped beating death of a Chicago Public Schools student last week.

"We weren't unified as a city," said Rob Fox. "We didn't get behind this enough."

At the spot in the city's Washington Park neighborhood where the city hoped to hold the Olympic opening ceremony in 2016, a victory bash ended before it began.

Leroy Bowers arrived outside a huge tent where the Olympic announcement party was to take place, only to hear the bad news from a despondent friend.

"Man, that's a heartbreaker," Bowers said, his wide eyes peering out from a "Chicago 2016" baseball cap.

"I was already picturing the stadium right here," he said, looking slightly into the distance. "I was already picturing the Olympians."

The friends turned right around and walked home.

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sstclair@tribune.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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