When President Barack Obama announced he was to travel to Copenhagen, Denmark the day before the International Olympic Committee announces who will host the 2016 Olympics, he was taking an important leaf out of Tony Blair’s book.
Former Prime Minister Blair joined the British delegation in Singapore for two days during the vital final stages of its bid for 2012. Just days later, London, against all expectations, was awarded the Olympics over its age-old rival, and favorite for the prize, France.
The commitment of Blair was all the more impressive for the timing of his round-the-world trip. He was due back inside Gleneagles in Scotland to host a vital G8 summit before the final announcement was made.
Obama, similarly, is taking time out of a challenging period in his administration as he battles for health care reform. In doing so, he is the first U.S. president to lobby in person for an Olympics event.
However, the President can learn a few other important lessons from how Great Britain turned the tables on the hot favourites for the 2012 Games. After all, he too will have to overturn a strong challenge from new 2016 favorites, Rio de Janeiro.
Lesson 1: Cash In On Personal Kudos
Team GB used not only Tony Blair in their campaign video but Her Majesty the Queen. Rio is backed by a man who Obama himself has called “the world’s most popular leader:” Brazil’s president Luis Inacio da Silva. This man has an 80 percent approval rating with his own voters, and is leading a newly-oil-rich Brazil onto the U.N. Security Council.
But if there is one man who can outgun the Brazilian leader in popularity, it is Obama. By joining his wife in Copenhagen, he mounts an attack almost as formidable as Blair and Her Majesty. And nothing less will do.
Lesson 2: Prove Your Credentials
At the final show-down in Singapore, Team GB had football icon David Beckham: not just to for his sporting credentials but because he was born and bred where the 2012 Olympic Village will be located. He wept as the announcement was made.
The Obamas can do even better. He represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate after serving in the Illinois Legislature and considers Chicago to be his adopted home. She is a native of the city. Together, they form the perfect team to represent Chicago.
Lesson 3: Don’t Diss The Opposition
Just ask France’s Jacques Chirac. He all but threw away his country’s hope of success when he brazenly announced about the U.K.: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.” Suffice to say, the President’s comments didn’t go down too well with the I.O.C.
Lesson 4: Press The Right Sporting Buttons
The Obamas certainly have pulling power. But when it comes to fellow supporters, the Chicago campaign might want a rethink. Michael Johnson: good. In fact great.
But Nadia Comaneci? Didn’t she compete for Romania before obtaining dual nationality? Oprah Winfrey may be Chicago’s most celebrated philanthropist, but we’re talking sport, not just celebrity.
Team GB’s campaign was spearheaded by multi-Olympic gold medal winners Sebastian Coe, Kelly Holmes, Steve Redgrave and another footballing icon, Bobby Charlton. Coe himself, who led an intelligent, articulate and determined campaign for well over a year before the final vote, was credited with much of the London bid success.
Lesson 5: Show Passion
London’s victory followed a passionate and inspirational plea by Coe. That passion was quoted directly by one of the Committee’s voters, Dutch member Anton Geesink: “Two different strategies—the French and the British. The British, they explained their love of the sport. It is a love affair for Sebastian Coe, that was the difference.”
Lesson 6: Leave A Legacy
The London bid was built on two main foundations: the massive urban renewal of a dilapidated area of East London; and to show a new generation that sport matters.
London took 30 youngsters from East End schools as part of its 100-person delegation, and Coe drew this to the attention of the members: "Why are so many here taking the place of politicians and businessmen? It’s because we are serious about inspiring young people. Thanks to London’s mix of 200 nations they also represent the world."
Part of London’s core programme has been to find, nurture and develop talented youngsters, not just as potential medal winners but also to pass on a legacy of health and optimism. It was, and remains, an irresistible argument.
Lesson 7: The New Kids on the Block Can Win
Paris was confident that its third attempt to win the Games would succeed, having failed to get the nod for the 1992 and 2008 events. Madrid didn’t make the cut for the 2012 bid and it’s unlikely to do so again: Europe cannot expect to host two successive Games.
Rio has the advantage of trying to win the Games for South America for the first time. So Chicago will be one of the two “new kids” in the final head to head.
And Some Rather More Cynical Lessons?
Any mention of Nelson Mandela is a winner. Blair, in a televised message, said he had been greatly inspired by his visit to the Athens Games, and by Mandela's endorsement of the London bid. Speaking in more than one language is even better. Blair dropped into French for an entire segment of this speech.
Another winner is generosity in adversity. Part of London’s pitch apparently included reference to the fact that it stepped in to help the Olympic movement by staging the Games while Europe was still recovering from World War 2. Now that is really upping the stakes!
But In The End….
The Chicago campaign can win or lose on the very last day. The London vs. Paris race went, by all accounts, all the way to the wire. The deciding factor, according to a number of the Committee, came down to Coe’s charisma and passion, and the appeal of his team’s final presentation.
Senior Australian I.O.C. member Kevan Gosper said “London won because of the way it sold its message in the final hours. Their presentation just had that little extra feel.”
And that is precisely where Barack and Michelle Obama have the upper hand, and where the bid may indeed be won or lost.