Breaking down the 2016 Olympic vote

On Friday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will vote on the host of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, choosing between Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo. Olympic voting is a subject that I know quite a bit about, as I once worked as an International Relations Analyst for New York's 2012 bid.

Writing about the vote on this site might not fit its LA theme, but with President Barack Obama's decision to travel to Copenhagen this Friday, the story is receiving considerable national news, and I feel as though I have quite a bit of insight to offer. With the exception of Alan Abrahamson's fantastic writing at Universal Sports, it's very difficult find information written about the Olympic Movement that's accurate or meaningful, so I will try to shed some light on the upcoming vote.

The way the race shapes up right now, Rio is a slight favorite over Chicago, with Madrid and Tokyo a bit further back. That's the way and Around the Rings see it, two of the leading Olympic sites out there. That being said, this is the most evenly matched Olympic bid race that I can remember, and it is entirely possible that any one of the four cities could be eliminated in the first round or wind up winning the whole thing.

Barack Obama's decision to travel to Copenhagen gives the Chicago bid a tremendous boost, but it does not assure them a victory. Four years ago, I was in Singapore for the 2012 vote when London, Paris, Madrid, New York, and Moscow all competed. Paris was generally considered the favorite, but then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair traveled to Singapore and met with over 30 IOC members. Conversely, then-French President Jacques Chirac showed up the morning of the vote, hardly spoke to any IOC members, didn't say a word during Paris' presentation, and then watched as London eked out 54-50 win.

Like Chirac, Obama will also show up on the morning of the vote, and it's hard to imagine how he'll meet with many IOC members. But unlike Chirac, Obama will speak in the presentation, and all Americans know what a huge advantage that can be. Reportedly, Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett have been on the phone with IOC Members. Michelle Obama and Jarrett will also meet with as many IOC Members as possible in the days leading up to the vote in Copenhagen, and its certainly plausible to think that President Obama has already had phone conversations with other members.

Obama traveling to Copenhagen was absolutely essential for the Chicago bid. After Blair's work for London and Vladimir Putin's successful lobbying for the Sochi 2014 Winter Bid, the other three bid cities planned to send heads of state and Obama's absence would have been noticed. That being said, the IOC is a fickle body that is wildly unpredictable. Its insistence on using a secret ballot means that members are not held accountable for their votes, and members can also change votes from round to round, causing quick and dramatic shifts in the race.

The favorite seldom wins in Olympic voting. Since the IOC split the summer and winter Olympic Games into separate years, the favorite has only won twice. Consider the following:

Favorite - Sofia
Winner - Lillehammer

Favorite - Athens
Winner - Atlanta

Favorite - Salt Lake City
Winner - Nagano

Favorite - Beijing
Winner - Sydney

Favorite - Salt Lake City
Winner - Salt Lake City

Favorite - Rome
Winner - Athens

Favorite - Sion
Winner - Turin

Favorite - Beijing
Winner - Beijing

Favorite - Salzburg
Winner - Vancouver

Favorite - Paris
Winner - London

Favorite - PyeongChang
Winner - Sochi

Favorite - Rio de Janeiro
Winner - Unknown

As you can see, the IOC rarely does what anyone expects it to. Next, let's take a look at each of the four bid cities' chances:


From a technical standpoint, the Tokyo bid is excellent. Should Tokyo win the right to host the 2016 Games, it could be the most technologically advanced Olympics ever. Just a few months ago, Tokyo was viewed by some as the favorite to win the Games outright. But the Evaluation Commission Report revealed some chinks in Tokyo's armor.

The report subtly criticized the bid on venue completion, hotel rates, traffic, public support, and the fact that its Olympic Village would be near a fish market. Most of these complaints seem exaggerated, but it is enough to indicate that the "IOC Office" would rather not see Tokyo win.

There are a few other factors working against Tokyo. The city hosted has already hosted the Olympics in 1964, while its three competitors have never hosted the Games. The 2016 Games would be just eight years after Beijing, sooner than the IOC might like to return to East Asia. Additionally, East Asia is in a time zone that's very unfriendly to both Europe and North America, potentially diminishing television rights fees.

East Asia is somewhat underrepresented among the IOC membership as well, providing Tokyo with less of a support base than it might otherwise enjoy. PyeongChang in South Korea will make a very strong bid for the 2018 Winter Games after back-to-back close and bitter defeats, and anyone who supports that bid will oppose a Tokyo bid. Harbin in China is bidding for those 2018 Winter Games as well. There's only one IOC member from Korea and two from China, but those bids could have support elsewhere in Asia. It might be enough to eliminate Tokyo early from what could be a very close vote.


Madrid is another city with a first-rate bid. It offers the compact, low-cost, existing venue option that the "IOC Office" would like to see. But the language in the Evaluation Commission Report was not completely gung-ho about Madrid either.

The biggest factor working against Madrid is location. After being in London in 2012 and Sochi in 2014, it's unlikely that the IOC would want the Games to return to Europe for a third straight time. Personally, I was very surprised that Madrid even bid for 2016, despite a strong showing 4 years ago. It's not just about Games that have been awarded to Europe, but it's about Games that could be awarded to Europe.

Munich has already announced its bid for the 2018 Winter Games, and Annecy in France will be one of its tougher competitors. Rome would also like to bid for the 2020 Summer Games, and it's possible that other European cities will join that race too. There are three IOC Members from Germany, two from France, and five from Italy. All of them have a compelling reason to vote against Madrid, if only because a Madrid win would undermine the chances of a city in their home country.

Additionally, there are five IOC Members from Switzerland (compared to just two from the U.S.), two from the Netherlands, and members from royal families in countries such as Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Monaco. There are also several Francophiles on the IOC in Africa. I'm sure that many of those members are looking two and four years ahead as well, further damaging Madrid's chances.

The one saving grace working for Madrid is former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has used his influence to help bids from his native Spain before. Samaranch helped Barcelona win for the 1992 Summer Games. In the 1998 Winter Olympic voting, Samaranch did not want to see underdog Jaca, Spain embarrassed. Jaca finished a surprising second in the first round with 19 votes, forcing favorite Salt Lake City to beat Aosta, Italy in an elimination tiebreaker vote. Once Samaranch's friends knew that Jaca would survive at least one round, the city plummeted to just five votes in the second round and was eliminated. (Salt Lake City wound up losing a close 46-42 vote to Nagano.) Jaca has since bid for three more Winter Games, only to fail in the technical stage all three times.

Even after Samaranch's retirement, he wielded his influence on the 2012 vote. Not wanting Madrid to be embarrassed with an early exit, Samaranch called in old favors and the Spanish city shockingly led the second round with 32 votes, compared to 27 for London and 25 for Paris. New York was eliminated in that round with 16 votes (down from 19 in the previous round). In the third round though, Madrd fell back to 31 votes and London and Paris both moved onto the final round with 39 and 33 votes, respectively.

It remains to be seen how much influence an 89-year old Samaranch can wield this time around. He failed to get his son elected as an IOC Vice President recently. At the same point in time, some of his old friends might vote for Madrid to be awarded the Games in his last years. Oddly enough, Samaranch's influence could come at the expense of Latin American votes for Rio and wind up helping Chicago. I might be wrong, but I would bet that if Chicago and Madrid are in the final round, then Chicago would win.


The Chicago bid is excellent, and its one of the best that the U.S. has ever seen. Their bid team has recognized the lessons to be learned from New York, and they have acted with both strength and humility throughout the process. Chicago has put together the best possible bid that it could for the IOC, offering greater cost guarantees than any US bid. Its ability to sign the host city contract with a unanimous City Council vote a month before the IOC Session was a huge development. I would also argue that the Chicago bid is financially sound and will help the region's economy.

Chicago offers the compact, existing venue bid that the IOC would like to see, and it's a new Olympic city that could really receive a boost from hosting a Games, which the IOC loves. For example, after Barcelona hosted the 1992 Games, it became the No. 3 tourist destination in Europe, which is a legacy that the IOC likes as it only encourages more bidding. All of the people working on the Chicago bid are smart, and they have a legacy plan for youth sport and development that should impress IOC members. Chicago also offers the best chance for the IOC to receive significant television and sponsorship revenue going forward, and alienating the U.S. could affect the institution's bottom line, particularly worrisome in the current economic climate.

The biggest factor working against Chicago is the USOC, which has made numerous missteps in recent months. Anti-USOC sentiment played a significant role in New York's loss four years ago. The USOC receives 12.75-percent of the U.S. television rights fees and approximately 16-percent of marketing revenues from the IOC TOP sponsorship program. About half of all those revenues go to host cities, while 204 IOC member nations share approximately 30-percent.

Now, there is a good reason for that disparity, most notably because U.S. companies predominantly fund the TOP sponsorship program, and General Electric (NBC's parent company) is responsible for about one-fourth of all IOC revenue. Also, the USOC is the only National Olympic Committee (NOC) which does not receive any government funding. That all being said, more overseas companies are becoming Olympic sponsors, and most NOCs would like to see the revenue disparity diminished.

After some heated rhetoric in the public press, the USOC wound up reaching a truce with the IOC on this subject about a year ago. Thanks largely to the great work of USOC officials Bob Ctvrtlik and Robert Fasulo in recent years, the USOC had made great progress on improving its standing within the Olympic community, which previously had come to view America as arrogant and out of touch.

Additionally the USOC had gone through a period of instability, mismanagement, and turmoil in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Peter Ueberroth, who is well-known here in Los Angeles, was named USOC Chairman in 2004 and helped clean up the organization, facilitating much of the progress that Ctvrtlik and Fasulo had made.

Ueberroth's term as chairman expired last year, probably not at the best time for the Chicago bid. He remains on the Board, but was succeeded by former Electronic Arts CEO Larry Probst, a very capable corporate executive who is a newcomer to the Olympic scene. In a rather unusual turn of events, well-liked and well-respected USOC President Jim Scherr resigned last March, making some question the relationship between him and Probst. Stephanie Streeter was named Acting USOC President.

IOC members like stability and they have relationships with NOC leaders that goes back decades. While Probst may very well have the USOC on the right track, the IOC knows little about him and Streeter. The IOC does know that Probst is the sixth USOC Chairman this decade, and Streeter is the fifth USOC President since 2000.

While the Scherr resignation hurt Chicago somewhat, the real damage was done when the USOC announced the formation of a television network in July. While it's understandable that the USOC would want to search for new sources of revenue if it will begin to receive a smaller share of TOP sponsorship dollars, the IOC had not yet given the USOC its "OK" on a new network. The IOC is concerned about how television rights would be calculated and does not yet know if such a network would undermine its current relationship with NBC, which started its own cable network Universal Sports. The announcement led to a slew of angry public comments from Puerto Rican IOC member Richard Carrion, who is also the CEO of Banco Popular and a vote that Chicago would hope to get.

Probst wound up flying to Berlin for a meeting with IOC president Jacques Rogge, and agreed to halt plans for the new network. The move helped save face for the USOC, but the entire ordeal led IOC members to again question whether or not America was arrogant and out of touch on Olympic matters.

The only person who can help ameliorate concerns about the USOC this week is President Obama. Political pundits might not realize this, but President Obama, his wife Michelle, and other US leaders might be talking to IOC members more about the USOC's future role in the Olympic community rather than the United States' role in the global community.

Rio de Janeiro

The Olympics have never been held in South America, a fact that is Rio's greatest strength. Many IOC members believe that the Games should rotate through the continents, and some think that a Rio victory for 2016 followed by a South Africa victory (Cape Town or Durban) for 2020 would help bring true universality to the Olympic Movement. (The Olympic Games have never been held in Africa either.)

The language of the Evaluation Commission report was clearly pro-Rio, showing that the "IOC Office" favors a Rio Games. When I say "IOC Office," I'm partially referring to Jacques Rogge and the individuals who work at Olympic headquarters in Lausanne. I'm also referring to top-ranking Olympic officials who hold important positions on some of the IOC's more influential commissions. That being said, the "IOC Office" does not always get its way, as it likely favored Paris four years ago.

Jacques Rogge is very popular within the IOC, but he does not control everyone. When people say "the IOC thinks this" or the "IOC doesn't like that country," they are making broad and sweeping generalizations which are often not true. There are 106 IOC members from 84 different countries, many of whom have highly personal reasons to vote for a particular city. (Only 105 will actually be able to vote, but that's another story)

As noted before, some IOC members vote for 2016 with 2018 and 2020 in mind. Other IOC members care greatly about a particular sport, and may vote for the city that offers the best plan and legacy for track & field, rowing, or judo for example. For other members it could be about something as trite as their favorite hotel, their favorite restaurant, or where their friends live.

The IOC also uses an electronic voting system that many members consider highly confusing. It can even be complex for some of the more computer savvy members. I've heard my fair share of crazy stories about IOC members struggling to work the electronic voting system. For example, it was rumored that one member accidentally hit the wrong button, causing him to vote for a city that he had not intended to pick. Worried that other IOC members might be peering over at him, and concerned that he would look either indecisive or computer illiterate, the IOC member stubbornly clung to the unusual choice. Another rumor was that an older IOC member once was so old and so weak that he could not physically press the button required to vote, and he was officially recorded as having abstained.

I bring all of this up simply to point out that on Saturday many news pundits will be making definitive statements about the results and the symbolism that it has on international affairs. However, any one of the above silly factors could affect the outcome, so it's important that journalists take the results with a grain of salt.

But back to Rio, which is riding high after running an terrific campaign that started the moment it hosted a relatively successful Pan Am games in 2007. Some also think that Rio could still generate hefty TV rights fees since it's in a US-friendly time zone. Rio may have general IOC sentiment in its favor, and that might be enough to put it over the top, but there are some serious concerns about the Rio bid. Alan Abrahamson discusses many of them here, but I'll discuss a few as well.

First off, crime is a major problem in Rio, and many IOC members will have serious concerns about security should the Brazilian city host the Games. Secondly, Rio failed in the technical stage for the 2012 Games, and while the Pan Am Games have helped allay many concerns about the capabilities of the city to host major international events, there are still major questions about its Olympic readiness. The reviews on the Pan Am Games were mixed anyways.

Brazil is hosting the World Cup in 2014, an event that means far more to any Brazilian than the Olympics. When an Olympic Games is awarded to a city, the IOC hopes and expects the host city to put resources behind promoting each Olympic sport in its country for seven years. But with soccer taking up much of those resources for five of the seven years, it remains to be seen how effective Rio can be at spreading goodwill for lesser-known Olympic sports.

Additionally, the Brazilian government is going to have to spend a fortune in stadium construction for the World Cup. Constructing additional facilities for the Olympics will undoubtedly put a strain on its budget. Some IOC members who care about soccer, might worry how an Olympic Games could affect the World Cup. Other members might wonder if Brazil can really pull off the world's two biggest sporting events in three years.

Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be in Copenhagen this week too, and his enthusiastic work on behalf of Rio has only helped that bid. Bid leader and IOC member Carlos Nuzman is well-liked in the Olympic community and he has been the face of the Rio bid. Additionally, 93-year old IOC member and former FIFA President Joao Havelange has near Samaranch-like status in the IOC, and he will be calling in many favors.

But Havelange might have screwed up when he bragged two weeks ago to Brazilian television station TV Bandeirantes that he has brought in as many as 20 votes, specifically naming several IOC members such as China's Zhenliang He, Hong Kong's Timothy Fok, Tunisia's Mohammed Mzali, and Mexico's Olegario Vazquez Rana. He even cited specific letters that he had received from some of these members. If there's one thing IOC members hate more than anything, it's having their votes made public. They truly cherish the secret ballot, and several members will vote against Rio just because of Havelange's comments.

Final Remarks

Anyone who makes a prediction about the wildly unpredictable IOC votes is foolish. A lot can change between now and Friday as well. The first round could literally go any way, since many IOC members will be changing their votes from round to round, causing any one of the four cities to be eliminated early.

Personally, I think President Obama's decision to travel to Copenhagen is huge, and it's certainly a game changer. What he says to IOC members and how he handles his visit could ultimately decide which city will win. But if Chicago doesn't win, it might not necessarily be his fault. As I've noted above, when you have 105 different voters with 105 different agendas, then anything can happen.

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