San Francisco's Deja Vu Could Quash America's Dreams For 2016

I wasn’t there, but I could practically hear the frustrated sighs emanating from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) headquarters in Colorado Springs last week. The deja vu of disappointment was unmistakable when the San Francisco 49ers decided to pull out of any possible deal with an Olympic bid and take its business to Santa Clara instead.

Less than two years ago, New York 2012 – perhaps the most high profile bid ever presented by the USOC – lost its marquee venue, a West-end Manhattan Olympic Stadium and future home to the New York Jets football team just weeks before the International Olympic Committee was to choose a host city. This effectively killed any chances the city may have had to win the bid, but with nothing further to lose the bid committee concocted a backup plan that saw the Olympic Stadium move to Queens and what would be the eventual new home of the New York Mets baseball team. Unfortunately this did nothing to save face on the international scene and the bid went down with a whimper.

To make the most of this embarrassment, the USOC went through a “lessons learned” process and totally revamped the internal site selection process for a possible 2016 bid. Rather than a competition, it was to be a consultative process where the USOC would work closely with the bidding cities to prepare a proposal worthy of international competition. If one was found, the USOC would take it under its wing and move forward.

Surely a critical element was a locked-down venue plan, including the Olympic Stadium, and several other guarantees.

But San Francisco’s bid leaders claimed they were “in shock” when the 49ers made their surprise announcement and denied the bid their marquee venue – one that apparently was only a possible solution at best according to a letter released by team officials last week.

“There is still a significant hurdle to overcome”, John York, co-owner of the 49ers wrote to the San Francisco Mayor in a letter written September 14.

With the facts in place, back-up plan or not, the San Francisco bid leaders made the correct political decision to withdraw which could spare the USOC further headaches on the matter. But is the damage already done? Has the USOC gained a reputation that it may not be able to deliver on its promises, and will they now insist that venues already be in place?

Enter Chicago and Los Angeles, the remaining bid hopefuls.

Los Angeles already has an Olympic Stadium. In fact, it has already been used for the Olympics twice so they can pretty much guarantee a stadium without risk. Chicago has planned a new stadium in Washington Park, and while nobody can be sure that it is guaranteed at this point, at least we can be certain that there is no football team prerequisite.

So now you’re thinking Los Angeles has to be the safe bet for the USOC. Well, think again. This stadium battle has already been played out on the international scene when Paris faced London in the bid for 2012.

Flashback to 2012:

Paris presented a pre-existing venue, the Stade de France – an economical, guaranteed facility that was already a legacy of the 1998 Soccer World Cup.

London boasted a brand new stadium plan that was to become the centrepiece of an entirely new Olympic venue complex in London’s Lower Lea Valley. The stadium is to be scaled back after the Games to become a more manageable and useful legacy – similar to Chicago’s current plan.

London won the battle and will host the 2012 Games after IOC members applauded the exciting new venue concept, preferring it to the second-hand Paris offering. It’s clear that IOC members want guarantees without sacrificing the glamour of the Olympic Games – they want it all.

During that 2012 campaign Paris followed the rules, played it safe and gave the IOC what they asked for. London tested the rules, worked aggressively and gave the IOC what they really wanted. In 18 months the London bid managed to erode a perceptually huge Paris lead. USOC – take note.

Back to 2016:

I’ve been reading reports this morning that Los Angeles is the new favorite in the U.S. race, contradicting the observations above. L.A. boasts completed venues and guarantees – but lacks the Hollywood sizzle and excitement that the IOC wants. The USOC really needs to work with Chicago to produce a compelling, innovative bid that not only instills confidence but also spoils the IOC in a way they’ve become accustomed to. If they don’t accomplish this they might as well pass on 2016 and regroup for a later bid.

San Francisco 2016 – Part 2?

I still get this odd feeling that the San Francisco bid hasn’t completely given up. While they’ve officially announced that they’ve withdrawn – they still haven’t wrapped up their media machine. The new Website is still being updated with press releases; the press releases continue to boast how great the plan is, and how much money has been raised; and this morning they’ve posted all of their bid documentation for the world to inspect. To me, it seems like the kind of damage control that happens when a bid is still in the works.

Yesterday SF2016 Managing Director Scott Givens announced the bid’s demise, but also suggested a couple of feasible backup plans that included a scaled-down venue for Candlestick Point without the 49ers or possibly continuing negotiations with the team in order to lure it back to San Francisco.

He stressed that the bid’s cancellation was due to a “perceptual gap” – that the bid was caught off-guard and couldn’t effectively respond to the events as they unfolded.

Is it possible that the USOC and SF2016 have engineered the withdrawal to give time for the bid to regroup, re-plan and then re-emerge stronger than ever? I doubt it, but the USOC is often full of surprises. After all, the purpose of the internal site selection process is to create a winning bid, not run a fair competition.