Despite the embarrassing rejection of his effort to lure the 2016 Olympic Games to his hometown of Chicago, President Barack Obama will keep the first-ever White House Olympic Office, POLITICO has learned.
The White House stressed that the office, officially called the White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport, is permanent and has purposes other than helping U.S. cities bid on and host the Olympics.
“It was always our intention that this office would continue to exist regardless of the outcome of the 2016 bid,” said a White House official, explaining that the office will work to boost youth sports and will coordinate with the State Department and other agencies to facilitate U.S. athletes’ participation in the Olympics and Paralympics in other countries.
“We are currently working to support the participation in the London and Vancouver Games,” said the official, referring to the 2012 summer and 2010 winter games, respectively. The official, who did not want to be identified discussing the internal organization of the White House, said the office has no independent budget, and is instead housed in the White House Office of Public Engagement, headed by Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama friend and senior White House adviser. Obama tapped Jarrett to head the Olympics office and lead the administration’s unprecedented effort to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago.
Jarrett and eight White House staffers worked part-time on the Chicago bid out of the White House Olympics office, said the official, who ignored questions about whether the staffing would be scaled back in light of the demise of Chicago’s bid, or whether there were any new U.S. Olympic bids in the works.
When Obama unveiled the office in June, the White House specified in a release it would work with the United States Olympic Committee, as well as state and local governments to “coordinate federal resources and act as liaison to, any organizing committee for an Olympic and Paralympic Games hosted in the United States.”
The office’s very existence was widely interpreted as an effort to mitigate what had been considered a key deficiency in U.S. Olympic bids. Unlike the national governments of most cities that vie for the Olympics, including the three that Chicago competed against for the 2016 Games, the U.S. has long lacked a federal sports agency and is statutorily barred from directly financing the Olympic Games.
But neither the establishment of the office, nor an unprecedented personal appeal by Obama, who flew to Copenhagen last week to make Chicago’s case at the 11th hour, were enough to sway the International Olympic Committee. It shocked even veteran Olympic observers by eliminating Chicago in its first round of voting Friday – only hours after hearing from Obama and first lady Michelle Obama – on its way to selecting with Rio de Janeiro.
The next Olympics the U.S. could host would likely be the 2020 Summer Games, since the application deadline for cities vying for the 2018 Winter Games is next week. And Olympic experts don’t expect the USOC to get behind bids for 2018 or 2020.
Denver and Reno previously had expressed interest in bidding for the 2018 Games, according to Rob Livingstone, an expert in the closely watched but opaque Olympic bid business. “But the USOC said ‘cool it, we don’t want any distractions while Chicago is bidding,’ ” Livingstone said.
“There is so much damage control going on in the USOC that I don’t think a 2018 bid makes sense and, honestly, I don’t think that a 2020 bid makes sense, either,” said Livingstone, who reported on the 2016 selection process last week from the IOC’s meeting in Copenhagen for his influential website GamesBids.com. “They’ve got to look inwards and build some new leadership, build some relationships with the IOC and then reconsider bidding.”
Some Olympic experts interpreted the IOC’s resounding rejection of Chicago as a repudiation of the U.S. and the USOC, which has not enjoyed good relations with the IOC. Many IOC members believe the American committee derives an inordinate share of television revenues.
Livingstone predicted that shuttering the office would only further IOC animosity towards the U.S.
“When I first heard about it opening, I thought of it as an olive branch – a gesture that they were saying they were going to support the Olympic movement at the highest level, so they’re not going to take that away,” he said.