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Clang! With chance to Be Like Mike, President Obama comes up empty

He just couldn't resist, could he? Sports is always so tempting for the politician: Starry-eyed fans, a docile crowd bursting with civic or national pride, all those softball questions from commentators happy just to get time with the big man ... what's not to like? Best of all, there's that wonderful finality about athletics, so seductive to one used to spending months on the slow, incremental grind of health care reform or the murk of Afghanistan. Sports seems so clear. There's a winner and a loser, a final score. It's kid stuff: Fun.

Still, though many will dismiss President Barack Obama's ill-fated, backfiring foray into the Olympic briar patch Friday as some dilettante's toe-dip, it's not that simple. His campaign appearance on Monday Night Football and that ESPN time-waster detailing his March Madness bracket last Spring may have seemed like naked bids for blue-collar legitimacy, but the guy can't help himself. When it comes to sports, he's not the cool, detached hopemeister. He's Richard Nixon scribbling down a play for the Redskins. He's a fanboy.

"You know what he wants to be when he grows up?" his wife, Michelle, told me during the 2008 campaign. "He doesn't want to be President. He wants to be a basketball player.

"He loves it. That's his stress release -- not just playing, but keeping up with sports. Barack is more inclined to turn to the sports section first in the paper; he's going to read the whole thing, but he starts with the sports section. And when he comes home, turns on the TV, he's going to turn on Sportscenter, ESPN, and he'll spend that evening of downtime clicking from one mundane sports station to the next. They're always saying the same thing and I'm sort of, like, 'Let me tell you what happened because we just saw it 10 minutes ago on the other sports station.' But we sit there and we watch Sportscenter."

So, no, to those who've played hoops with him or heard him talk about the place of sports in his young life, it was no shock to hear that Obama would fly overnight to Copenhagen on Friday to make a dramatic final plea for his adopted hometown, Chicago, and its bid against Tokyo, Madrid -- and eventual winner Rio de Janeiro -- for the right to host the 2016 Summer Games. Everyone had figured it would come down to Chi-town and Rio, and here was his chance, with the clock ticking to zero, to Be Like Mike, to hit that last-second shot ...

"I thought we had lost, we had lost because Obama came," said Brazilian president Lula da Silva.

Clang. By the time Chicago had been dropped from the running, shockingly after just the first-round of voting, Obama was already jetting home on Air Force One. Michelle had given the International Olympic Committee in Denmark a stirring speech in the morning about her dad's love of sports, her husband followed by opening his arms to the Olympic world with his typical, "I'm-No-W" rhetoric, but it turned out to be not nearly enough. Chicago had its teeth kicked onto the sidewalk. And those critics who said it would be undignified or plain distracting for Obama to be the first sitting U.S. president to lobby the IOC? They'll be shouting told-you-so right up until the Olympic flame lights up the Brazilian night.

"A profound disappointment," said USOC vice-president, and Chicago 2016 vice-chairman, Bob Ctvrtlik from a Copenhagen taxi Friday after the vote. But, he added, "I think the president taking the time and the effort to promote sports, promote sports to our youth, promote healthy good living -- which nearly all Olympic athletes represent -- is a worthwhile use of his time. If he gets criticized for this? The people criticizing are being unfair."

Maybe. But as dirty as the Olympic bid process can be, Friday's announcement was, indeed, the closest a meeting of suits can come to a sporting event -- with one clear winner, and a parade of wound-lickers like Chicago mayor Richard Daley, Oprah Winfrey, the teary-eyed bidders from Tokyo and Madrid and, not least, the president of the United States. Yes, Obama was only cast as Chicago's closer, the guy who'd come in to sway the last few undecideds. Yes, the Second City's pathetic finish makes clear that its bid was weaker than anyone knew, making his last-minute appearance almost irrelevant. But in a hyperactive political environment where perception is reality and the simple soundbite rules, none of that matters, does it? Obama put his name, charisma, and office on the line, and he lost badly. The idea that there's no one he can't dazzle has taken a massive hit.

In time, none of that will matter much -- at least outside of Washington. The fact is, Rio de Janeiro was the right choice all along, the one city of the four that, as Ctvrtlik put it, "had an easy answer to the question: Why?"

In other words, Rio's reason -- it's South America's time -- was the only compelling one in the lot. Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid offered to be efficient backdrops, but Rio gives the Olympics the chance to act like an Olympics again. Post-mortems will surely focus on the still-strong influence of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain. There will also be talk about lingering anti-Americanism, or the charisma-bakeoff between Brazil's President Lula and Obama. In the end, though, Rio is the only city that tickled the imagination, the only one that could imbue the 2016 games with an importance beyond sporting, and that's something the Olympics were in real danger of losing.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Olympic "movement" has struggled to find a new identity. Once a perfect proxy for superpower politics, it has tried on varying roles -- here a wedge for needed civic improvements (Barcelona, Athens), there a simple national celebration (Sydney, Lillehamer). Sometimes it was able to force admirable political change, as happened on the eve of the Seoul Olympics in 1988; sometimes, as in Beijing or Atlanta, the Olympics sacrificed its ideals to make big bucks. But its next three host cities -- Vancouver 2010, London 2012 and Sochi 2014 -- are an uninspired bunch, and one reason Chicago made so much sense was that it seemed to follow a new trend toward the safe and sound, and could command the highest sponsor and television fees. After the Beijing bonanza, it seemed a lock that the only Olympic movement would entail following the money to Illinois.

But then came Friday. Surely there was frenzied horsetrading and unseemly lobbying; the bid process will always be subject to charges of corruption. But it's hard not to wonder if the IOC members, eyeing the upcoming World Cup in South Africa next year, felt their supremacy slipping. It's hard not to take the process, for once, at face value, and wonder if the IOC saw the chance to put the first-ever Olympics in South America, and simply decided to make an inspired leap. "The IOC membership generally votes with their hearts much more than their heads," Ctvrtlik said, "And the emotion of Rio paid off."

You will hear plenty in the next seven years about Brazil's inefficiencies, about Rio's crime, about questionable facilities and a lack of hotel rooms. Asked if he thought Rio de Janeiro's organizers will do a good job of hosting in 2016, Ctvrtik all but choked on the thought; he managed a "we'll just have to see" and nothing more. Somehow, he and Obama and the rest of his adopted city didn't envision it ending quite like this: Wasn't Chicago such a nice idea?

It was, really, and that was the problem. Chicago seemed nice, and nothing more; Tokyo and Madrid promised repeats of what the Olympics have been before. Rio was the best pick, and has been all along. The only real shocker about Friday's vote is that the IOC -- despite every reason not to -- got it right, after all.

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