Op Ed: No Regrets from Chicago for Clean Olympic Bid

(ATR) Bribery was never part of Chicago’s strategy to win the 2016 Olympics says a leader of the bid in this Op Ed.

(ATR) Testimony in a Brazilian court last week said the winning bid from Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics was fueled by bribes to IOC members.

The testimony from the former Governor of Rio de Janeiro, now in prison, has generated new soul-searching in Chicago over why it lost the bid. Despite a stronger technical rating than Rio, Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting at the 200n IOC Session.

The Chicago Tribune published an editorial July 8 that says Rio won a gold medal for corruption.

John Murray, chief bid officer for Chicago 2016, supplied this op ed to Around the Rings. He says the bid team as well as people of Chicago can take pride in the fact that bribery and corruption was not an option.

Doing the Right Thing

by John Murray

In a court hearing last week, the former Governor of Rio testified that he collaborated with former IOC member and Rio 2016 Bid Chief Carlos Nuzman to bribe nine IOC members to buy their votes in a successful effort to secure the 2016 Olympic Games for Brazil.

The testimony shed additional light on the ongoing corruption saga related to the 2016 and 2020 bids. Nuzman was arrested in October 2017 after an investigation of corruption allegations within the IOC uncovered 16 gold bars worth more than $2M stashed in a Swiss bank vault. He was arrested on suspicion of corruption, money laundering, and participating in a criminal operation and is still awaiting trial.

The new information provided last week created a stir in the Chicago media, raising cries of foul play and the city being cheated out of a fair chance in the bid process. Given the time and cost involved, it is understandable that folks are upset, even this long after the October 2009 vote in Copenhagen where Chicago was ousted in the initial round. After all, Chicago’s 3-year bid effort cost more than $60 million, paid for entirely by private contributions and augmented with tens of millions worth of pro bono contributions from professional service firms. That amount includes direct payments to the USOC and IOC of more than $5 million to cover their costs for the bid process.

The bid also enlisted the hearts and minds of average citizens, corporate titans, aspiring and past Olympic athletes, and political leaders; all committed to finally bringing the Games back to Chicago.

I say back because it is a little-known fact that the Olympics had already been committed to Chicago once before. But after Missouri organizers failed to meet their original timeline for the 1903 World’s Fair and opened a full year late, Chicago agreed to move the first U.S. Olympic Games to St. Louis rather than split attention and loyalties. Thus the 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis in conjunction with the Fair and Chicago began its long wait to host the Games they had been rightfully awarded by Pierre de Coubertin himself.

In interviews this week, I was asked multiple times about the rumors of corruption that have haunted the bid process for decades and whether Chicago’s bid team had ever considered shady tactics as part of their efforts. The implication in these questions was clear: Chicago’s reputation is less than squeaky clean when it comes to local politics and corruption allegations, shouldn’t we have been able to beat Rio in a dirty fight?

I am proud to say that this type of approach was never even considered, and I pointed out to the reporters that our bid chairman Pat Ryan had made it crystal clear from the very beginning that unethical behavior of any kind would not be tolerated.

Looking back, I do not consider this approach to be naïve or quaint; we endeavored to play fair and live by the rules, competing in adherence with the Olympic Values that we sought to celebrate through a Chicago Games. To blemish that effort with bribery or quid pro quos may have delivered the economic impact we hoped for, but at what cost to our reputations and consciences? What message would be sent to our children about who we are and what we stand for as individuals, as a team, as a city?

Take another look at the photo to the left, all three men in that photo are either already in prison (Brazilian President Lula and Rio Governor Cabral) or on trial currently for corruption (Rio 2016 chairman Nuzman.) Do they feel it was worth it? I doubt it.

Sport rises above all else because of its purity and meritocratic nature. The spectators know that the men and women in thearena didn’t get there because of connections or pay-offs; their action on the field is open to see and victors are determined by the merits of their ability and performance.

Blemishing that purity by doping and cheating only leads to decreasing a sport’s appeal. Likewise, blemishing the competitive efforts of bid cities through bribery scandals only decreases the appeal of hosting the Games, as evidenced by decreased interest from bid cities in recent cycles. The IOC recognizes this, and they have strived to address these issues through reforms in the bidding process, which go part of the way towards correcting the issue; although I would argue that ending the secret voting process would help further these efforts.

I remember speaking with Pat Ryan on the one-year anniversary of the Copenhagen vote, and noting to him that not a single week had gone by in the previous year without someone inquiring about the loss. The inquiries were always similar: "what went wrong? how could we have lost in the first round? are we that bad?"

We had no proof then that we had been cheated, nor that Rio had spent $2 million to bribe nine voting members. But we did know that something wasn’t quite right and that we had a phenomenal bid. After all, the IOC Evaluation Committee had ranked us above Rio in the technical phase and many longtime Olympic Games experts praised the quality of the operations plan designed under Doug Arnot’s leadership. We definitely felt we deserved a better fate.

Thousands of people were involved in the Chicago bid effort, helping in ways big and small. It is disappointing to have to revisit this painful loss after all these years, but it also provides some solace.

You see, we always knew that the first round of the voting process would be our weakness; the votes were being spread across four geographically dispersed bid cities, all but Chicago with loyal supporters in their region of the world. European members (nearly half the votes) were likely to support Madrid and the legacy of Honorary IOC President Juan Samaranch in the first round.

Similarly, Asian voters were likely to support Japan and ensure they didn’t suffer the culturally significant impact of losing face due to a first-round exit.

Brazil was likely to have support from voters in Central and South America with their pursuit of the first games in the southern hemisphere.

That left Chicago with few natural supporters in the first round and it explains our focused efforts to court African votes along with our work to gain support across the board based on the merits of our Games plan and legacy. With less than 100 votes being cast, we knew that 25 votes would guarantee our move to the second round where we believed support would shift away from culture and tradition and toward pure strength of bids.

Carlos Nuzman and his fellow conspirators understood this as well, and it is telling that last week’s testimony clearly stated that the bribes were only guaranteed for the first round of voting. They needed to take out their strongest competition at our weakest moment.

The results are public knowledge. Chicago received only 18 votes in the first round and was eliminated from contention. Rio secured 26 votes and went on to be named Host City.

Twenty-six votes; eight votes more than Chicago. And they bought nine of them. Chicago didn’t lose anything. Once again, we gave away a Games that should have been ours to a city that couldn’t do it on their own.

I am proud to be from the City that Works, to have competed fairly, and to have dared greatly. And I am proud of the people that worked so hard for so long. So many great things have come from the effort and from the people that participated, including the Chicago Sports Commission, which continues the bid’s mission of bringing international sport to our city, and World Sport Chicago, whose bid legacy and mission to help Chicago’s least fortunate youth continues today through Up2US Sports and their excellent coaching programs.

Chicago stands tall today. Tall and true.

John Murray was the chief bid officer for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid. He is the founder and inaugural chairman of the Chicago Sports Commission; and CEO of Arena Partners, a sports and entertainment consultancy based in Chicago.