Saturday October 3rd, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- These are the wee hours of the morning after an IOC vote in Copenhagen and the fun is just beginning. Rio, one of the perceived co-favorites to win the rights to hold the 2016 Olympics, won the vote. No surprise. Chicago, the other perceived co-favorite finished fourth, behind Madrid and Tokyo. Surprise. How did that happen, especially when the buzz around the Marriot hotel where IOC members were staying suggested momentum might be swinging in Chicago's direction?

First, the bid committee and others may have underestimated how a badly damaged USOC may have hurt the city it nominated to win the Games (See "Disorganization" here). Second, the appeal from former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch on behalf on his native country may have helped. "I am near the end of my time," Samaranch said during Madrid's 45-minute presentation. In other words, His Excellency wanted one more great tribute in his life and another Olympics in Spain would be nice, amigos. More than half of the 100-plus members on the IOC were nominated during Samaranch's reign that lasted until 2001.

Yes, the vote may have been primarily a referendum on the sad state of the U.S. Olympic movement in general and specifically the USOC, but it was also a matter of voting strategy that never quite panned out.

First, some background ... the decision to award the Olympics to one city is not usually made after just one vote. IOC members vote for the candidate cities until one receives a majority of the available votes. If nobody reaches a majority after one round, the city with the fewest votes is eliminated. The same happens in the next round until finally a city has a majority. This often takes the vote down to the final two, but it only adds to the politicking and backroom agreements. Certain influential IOC members may be able to pull votes in the direction of their city of choice at one point in the process in return for similar support at a later point in the process. This can explain why a city could possibly receive, say, ten votes in round one as voters' No. 1 choice and eight votes in round two, even though there are more votes available in succeeding rounds. That shouldn't happen in a voting process in which voters always choose their favorite candidate, but it almost takes place at least once during an IOC vote. Consider the city vote on Friday:

ROUND 1 Madrid: 28 Rio: 26 Tokyo: 22 Chicago: 18 (eliminated)

ROUND 2 Rio 46 Madrid 29 Tokyo 20 (eliminated)

ROUND 3 Rio 66 Madrid 32

Notice that Tokyo received fewer votes, 20, in round two than the 22 it received in round one.

Yes, sometimes IOC members will vote for a weaker city in an early round, perhaps to pay a favor that will be or has been paid to them or simply to make sure a weaker candidate doesn't get embarrassed. Remember, IOC members want other IOC members in charge of sports funding to send funding to their national Olympic committee or sport governing body. The heads of international sports governing bodies want multi-sport competitions held in certain cities where their particular sport will get the most attention. Some members come from countries that field strong teams in the summer, but poor teams in the winter. Some members' countries may have a city bidding for the next winter Olympics when a summer Olympics is up for grabs. The IOC's evaluation report sells many members, based on the merits of the bids, but others can be swayed by a variety of influences, and we're not even talking about brazen direct payoffs that were curtailed after the Salt Lake bribery scandal broke a decade ago. Some voting blocs can be pre-arranged; other may evolve organically when voters have in mind a strong candidate from another region, but plan to vote within their region first.

At an IOC Session in 1989, when delegates voted for the city to host the Olympics in 1996, political overtones were everywhere. Athens was the presumed favorite, because the Greek capital would be celebrating the centennial of the modern Games that began with the 1896 Games in Athens. Toronto was said to have the best technical bid and Melbourne was trying to bring the Games back to Oceania after a 40-year absence. Against these odds, Atlanta's supporters courted the African vote, supported by the city's African-American-American leadership, such as Andrew Young. They also appealed behind the scenes for the IOC members to at least consider Atlanta their second choice, once the favorites went out. That was a dicey strategy, because it gave IOC members an excuse to overlook Atlanta in the early rounds. Indeed, Atlanta was only third after the second round of voting, with fewer votes than both Athens and Melbourne. Atlanta triumphed after the final round and hosted the 1996 Olympics. Melbourne received 21 votes in the second round, but only 16 in the third round. The math didn't add up, but the strategy must have made sense for some people.

Flash forward to 2009. One person familiar with the voting acknowledged that there were many IOC members, especially those from Europe, who were upset with the USOC's missteps and feuds with the IOC over the last year. The person also felt a strategy had backfired. Tokyo was thought to be going out in the first round, with Madrid next, thereby leaving a number of mostly-Asian votes up for grabs. In order not to embarrass the Japanese, some voters may have been willing to cast an early vote for Tokyo and a subsequent vote for Chicago. That didn't happen because Chicago received the fewest votes in the first round.

The behind-the scenes shenanigans only underscore the need for the IOC either to end the process of holding secret ballots or simply hold one vote with the edict that members can vote once and once only for the candidate city they feel is best. No more multiple-round votes.

Of course regardless of the system flaws and quirky deals, there will be fallout from Chicago's first-round exit. The USOC leadership screwed up badly this past year. Count on significant changes to be made within the USOC soon. Count on U.S. cities staying away from the Olympic bid process for a while. Count on the feud to further damage frayed relations between the USOC and IOC, and count on many people spending their Saturday trying to figure out what went wrong.

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