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For U.S., the Olympics have become away Games

Bids by Chicago and New York to host events have been rejected in recent years, and the problem between international and U.S. Olympic officials isn't just about money.

May 12, 2012|By David Wharton
  • Beginning with a festive opening ceremony, the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were almost too glitch-free to be believed. Potential problems such as traffic jams, overcrowded venues and unbearable heat and smog had sparked much concern, but never materialized.
Beginning with a festive opening ceremony, the 1984 Games in Los Angeles… (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)

When the 2012 London Olympics begin less than three months from now, it will mark an anniversary that Americans might not want to celebrate.

Ten years have passed since the Games last took place on U.S. soil. And with the bidding process extended years in advance, this country's next opportunity will not come around until 2022.

"That's a problem," said Anita DeFrantz, an International Olympic Committee member from Los Angeles. "We like hosting this event. It's important to the psyche of our people."

Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City proved to be successful host cities over the past three decades. DeFrantz is quick to point out that American broadcast deals and corporate sponsorships account for 60 cents of every dollar that pours into the Olympic movement.

Yet the IOC flatly rejected bids by New York and Chicago in recent years.

"There is a lot of resentment on the part of IOC members," said Robert Livingstone, who chronicles the bidding process on his website, "The belief is that the IOC is not really giving the U.S. a fair chance."

The situation is so bad that American officials decided not to bid for the 2020 Summer Games. Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said: "We want to look at the landscape.… It's not something we want to rush into."

By most accounts, the trouble centers on revenue sharing.

Because so much money flows from the U.S. to the Olympic movement, the IOC agreed long ago to give the USOC 20% of its global sponsorship revenue and 12.75% of U.S. broadcast fees.

This deal, which has the other 203 national Olympic committees splitting the rest of the financial pie, seemed to work fine for many years.

But then New York failed in its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics and Chicago suffered an equally painful defeat when Rio de Janeiro was selected for 2016.

It did not matter that President Obama had made the unprecedented gesture of meeting with the IOC on behalf of Chicago's bid. IOC members made their discontent known by voting out Chicago in the first round.

"The president is disappointed, as you might imagine," then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "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."

U.S. Olympic officials described the failed attempt as a wake-up call — they could no longer ignore grumbling from around the world.

"The relationship between the IOC and the U.S. definitely broke down," Livingstone said. "It became a recurring theme."

Money wasn't the only problem.

The USOC was struggling through a period of leadership upheaval and was not as active in the Olympic movement as it should have been, officials say. In January 2010, Scott Blackmun took over as the organization's new chief executive officer with a mandate to improve relations.

Negotiations over revenue sharing ensued. USOC officials have declined to discuss specifics but expressed optimism that a new deal can be struck.

"It's obviously a very detailed discussion," said Sandusky, who was involved in the Chicago and London bids before joining the USOC. "Our focus is on getting this agreement done."

In the meantime, Blackmun has tried to warm a decidedly chilly atmosphere.

Shortly after taking over, he attended the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, and held nearly 100 meetings with IOC members and foreign Olympic officials.

There were subsequent visits to major sporting events in Asia and the Middle East. In 2011, USOC Chairman Larry Probst took a position on the IOC's international relations commission.

On a smaller scale, America's effort can be seen at the USOC training center in Chula Vista, where foreign athletes and coaches train as guests.

"It's about being humble and doing what we can to service the movement," said Skip Gilbert, former head of USA Triathlon. "We're getting to know the IOC members and participating more throughout the world."

Several American cities, including Denver and Reno-Tahoe, have expressed preliminary interest in bidding for the 2022 Winter Games. But the process begins soon, so there is not much time for hammering out a revenue deal.

As a member of both the IOC and the USOC board of directors, DeFrantz has watched with some frustration, hoping the situation can be resolved.

"A lot of solutions have been put forward and I'm optimistic that one will stick," she said. "I don't mean to belittle the issue but, c'mon guys, let's solve it."

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