Hoping to persuade the International Olympic Committee to award the 2016 Summer Games to his hometown of Chicago, President Obama on Tuesday afternoon announced the formation of a new White House Olympics office.
The announcement, which provides institutional backing for Obama’s attempts to lure the Games, comes as backers of The Windy City’s bid prepare to make their case Wednesday to International Olympic Committee members meeting in Switzerland.
The IOC will hear presentations from Chicago and the three other finalist cities vying for the 2016 Olympics: Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo.
Chicago boosters will play a video supporting their bid taped by top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is leading the White House’s Olympic outreach.
The new Olympics office could help mitigate what had been considered a key Chicago deficiency in its high-stakes, big-money competition for the 2016 games, which will be awarded to one of the four finalists at an Oct. 2 meeting of the IOC in Copenhagen. Unlike the national governments of most other cities that compete for Olympic Games, the U.S. government has long lacked a federal sports agency and is statutorily barred from directly financing the Olympic Games.
Competing bids from other countries have tried to use that distinction to their advantage in the past efforts to sway the IOC, said Bill Mallon, a co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
“Even if [White House officials] don’t give financial guarantees, at least now they can say there is some government support behind the Olympic bid, and they’ve never been able to say that,” said Mallon. “We’ve never had anything approaching this. Historically, the U.S. government has said, ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with governing the Olympic Games and supporting Olympic sports in the United States.”
The new office – officially called the White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport – will “coordinate federal resources, and act as liaison to, any organizing committee for an Olympic and Paralympic Games hosted in the United States,” according to a statement announcing the new office.
The office also will work to promote youth sports, particularly in urban areas, the statement says. “As the International Olympic Committee moves forward with their selection process we hope that this new office can serve as a model for youth involvement worldwide,” Obama said in the statement.
The White House did not answer questions about staffing or budgeting, but did say the office would be housed in the White House Office of Public Engagement, whose top leadership includes Jarrett.
Obama has voiced support for Chicago’s Olympic bid since early in his presidential candidacy, casting it both as a matter of hometown pride and a symbol of his commitment to engaging the international community after a Bush presidency that critics say damaged U.S. standing on the world stage.
Since winning the presidency, Obama recorded two separate videos supporting the bid, one for presentation to the General Assembly of the European Olympic Committees in Istanbul less than three weeks after defeating Republican John McCain, and a second that was shown to IOC members during an April tour of Chicago.
In the Istanbul clip, Obama said, “I see the Olympics and Paralympic Games as an opportunity for our nation to reach out, welcome the world to our shores, and strengthen our friendships across the globe."
Jarrett had been vice chair of Chicago 2016, which still maintains deep ties to some of Obama’s closest backers, who are among its top officials and major financiers.
Chicago 2016, the non-profit group leading Chicago’s bid, meanwhile, is led partly by Obama allies, and has leaned heavily on the international goodwill generated first by Obama’s candidacy and now his presidency.
It adopted a six-point logo it calls “the Chicago star” that serves as bid’s official logo, which tracks closely with the themes employed by the Obama campaign — with hope representing “the top point” and other points including respect, harmony and celebration.
Four of the five co-chairs of Obama's inaugural committee have unpaid leadership roles in the Chicago bid, including Pat Ryan, the chairman and CEO of Chicago 2016; John Rodgers, the treasurer and director of Chicago 2016; Penny Pritzker, the hotel heiress who led Obama’s meteoric presidential campaign fundraising; and Bill Daley, the former Clinton Commerce Secretary and brother of the Chicago mayor.
Ryan and Priztker each contributed $100,000 or more to Chicago 2016, as did White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, an Obama family friend, who also served on the Chicago committee. It still counts Obama confidant and vacation companion Eric Whitaker among its members. Jarrett was replaced as vice chair by Martin Nesbitt, the treasurer of Obama’s campaign and another Obamaland fixture.
But Olympic observers and several members of the IOC last month told POLITICO that the real test of Obama’s commitment will be whether he travels to Copenhagen on October 2 to personally deliver Chicago’s final pitch to IOC members who will vote to decide the winning bid for the 2016 games. That could be risky for him, since it would undoubtedly be cast as a personal defeat if Chicago loses.
The White House didn’t answer questions Tuesday about whether Obama planned to make the trip.