2016 bid torch passed to Michelle Obama
First lady -- not president -- to fly to Copenhagen to help make final pitch for Chicago to land Games
Katherine Skiba, Kathy Bergen and Philip Hersh -
Chicago Tribune reporters -
September 12, 2009
First Lady Michelle Obama will lead a delegation to Copenhagen next
month for the vote on whether Chicago beats three rivals to win the
2016 Summer Olympic Games.
the White House announcement Friday trumpeting the first lady's
high-profile mission did little to extinguish a question that burns as
brightly as the Olympic torch: Will the popular first lady ultimately
let her husband take the lead in the hour long presentation before the
International Olympic Committee's vote on Oct. 2?
afternoon, amid heavy speculation over whether the president would
travel to Copenhagen to try to seal a deal, White House officials
revealed that Mrs. Obama would serve as an ambassador for Chicago 2016
when it states its case for the bid over Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de
In announcing Mrs. Obama's loftiest assignment yet,
White House officials said President Barack Obama on Friday informed
the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge,
that the effort to pass health-care reform "keeps him from committing
at this time to travel to Copenhagen on Oct. 2."
"At this time" was the operative phrase that seemed to leave open the prospect of a last-minute surprise trip by the president.
Obama will be accompanied by Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior
adviser, longtime friend and big backer of bringing the Games to
Chicago. A group of athletes and celebrities is expected to join them.
is no doubt in my mind that Chicago would offer the world a fantastic
setting for these historic games," Mrs. Obama said in a statement, "and
I hope that the Olympic torch will have the chance to burn brightly in
Mayor Richard Daley said he was "thrilled" that the first lady was going.
a lifelong resident of our city, Michelle's passion for Chicago is
contagious," he said in a statement, adding, "This is not just
Chicago's bid, it is America's bid."
At a news conference in
Chicago, Patrick Ryan, CEO of Chicago 2016, applauded the choice and
termed Chicago's bid historic, citing "total cohesion" in support "from
City Hall to the state capitol to the White House." Still, reporters
asked: Is the door closed to a presidential trip?
the White House statement spoke for itself, adding: "I think Michelle
Obama will represent our country, our city and our bid tremendously.
... This vote is not going to be decided based on how many political
leaders are going to be there."
One observer said the
announcement that Mrs. Obama would take the lead convinced him that the
president would indeed show up at the 11th hour, creating a bigger
"This is a great strategy to generate much more interest
and to have a much greater entrance," said sports industry expert Marc
Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd. "His wife can go and represent him.
It's someone senior from the White House and someone who's much better
than Valerie Jarrett, who's a lovely lady but does not have the
gravitas of the president or Michelle.
"And watch, Barack will
show up almost unannounced, for a couple hours," Ganis said. "He'll
give his commitment, look IOC members in the eye and say, 'I want your
vote.' The same day he'll be back on Air Force One and back in
Washington. This is a wonderful David Axelrod moment."
Axelrod, a top White House adviser from Chicago, spearheaded President Obama's campaign.
first lady, whose approval ratings approach or exceed 70 percent, is
sure to add substance and sizzle by virtue of two Ivy League degrees, a
spot on Vanity Fair's International Best Dressed List and her advocacy
of a host of pet issues including support for military families,
healthy eating and education.
High-profile lobbyists have held
sway in the past. Britain's Tony Blair and Russia's Vladimir Putin
helped persuade IOC members before their countries won Olympic Games
set for 2012 and 2014.
This time, a large cast of VIPs --
including King Juan Carlos of Spain, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva and possibly the Japanese royal family -- will go to
Copenhagen to push for their countries.
Next Wednesday, the
Obamas will welcome Olympic and Paralympic athletes to the White House
to advance Chicago's bid, and questions about whether the president
will appear in Copenhagen are bound to persist.
historian Kevin Wamsley of the University of Western Ontario said the
first lady's presence is unlikely to carry as much weight as the
president's could. "He does have a presence, and it's a little more
overwhelming than other international leaders," Wamsley said. "My guess
is that a lot of minds may be made up, but there may be little bit of a
One person who didn't think that the president's
presence would matter was IOC member Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden, an
Olympic champion alpine skier in the 1990s.
"I think the people
from Chicago will be able to do a very good job with or without
President Barack Obama," she said in an e-mail. "If he comes I would
love to say hello, but I am sure it will not make me vote in one way or