Olympics: Obama vs. Lula? Chicago vs. Rio? Which would you choose?

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL — Bringing justice and more power to the little guy has been a theme stressed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva almost every day of his long political career. Now, Brazil’s president is hoping the International Olympic Committee (IOC) might see things his way.

Lula will be in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Friday to support Rio de Janeiro’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The self-appointed “Marvelous City” faces tough competition from Madrid, Tokyo, and especially Chicago. Today, US officials announced that President Obama would also go to Copenhagen to back Chicago’s bid.

The presidents of the US, Brazil, and Spain are expected to participate in the final presentation Friday to more than 100 members of the Olympic committee.

But while Lula and his Brazilian colleagues have hammered home the usual reasons to choose Rio — its stunning geography between mountains and ocean, its welcoming people, and its amenable climate — fairness is their main trump card.

“It’s not fair that Brazil not be chosen,” Lula said recently in one of many such appeals to delegates. “For the others it is just one more Olympics, for us it is a chance to show our self-esteem, to show our competence, and to show that we can do it better than them.”

“The United States with summer and winter Olympics hhas held eight. Barcelona has had it. Tokyo has had it. And South America, Latin America has only had one Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968,” the Brazilian president said.

That is a valid argument, especially given that Rio’s bid stacks up favorably against its rivals. The IOC lauded Rio’s final presentation, going as far as to congratulate it on its “increased public safety and reductions in crime,” even though the number of homicides in the city is rising.

The Olympic Games committee said Rio’s biggest challenge was lodging. Although the city is a popular tourist destination it lacks hotel beds. The technical presentation, outlining plans for infrastructure, venues, media and the Paralympic Games, among others, was described as “detailed and of a very high quality.”

But some Rio residents question the credibility of such promises. Rio’s closest experience in hosting an international sports event of this scale was with the Pan American Games in 2007. To win the Pan Ams, Brazil promised a new ring-road system for the city, a “light” highway, a new state highway and 54 kilometers of new metro lines.

None of those major public works projects, however, came to fruition, particularly egregious omissions given that the Pan Am Games came in at eight times over budget by some estimates.

“We spoke a lot about Barcelona and how the Olympic Games changed the city for the better and there was an expectation that the Pan American Games would do that for Rio, but it didn’t alter anything,” says Chico Alencar, a Rio congressman who campaigned for investigations into the overspending. “Even the sports facilities are underutilized. Rio’s chronic problems remain the same.”

The big question now is whether the IOC will take a leap of faith and choose South America for the first time over the tried-and-tested USA.

Obama’s lobbying or not, Lula believes it would only be “fair” to give Rio a shot.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/30/2009 - 03:06 pm.

    We’ve had a lot of summer and winter games here in the U.S.: Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Lake Placid, just since 1980.

    I like the idea of holding the Olympics in South America for the first time, although I must admit that I have a sentimental attachment to Tokyo.

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