What Really Happened In Chicago: Gleanings From An Olympic Bid Evaluation

Now that the pomp and circumstance of the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation of Chicago 2016 is a memory – it’s time to boil down the results.

But we won’t really have any concrete evidence of the success of the visit until September 2nd – that’s when the IOC releases the evaluation report of the four Candidate Cities based on bid books and the city visits.

Sure, we saw the commission enjoy a dinner with Oprah, magically lit skylines and marching bands, but the visit was about sport, venues, finances and the infrastructure required to successfully host the Olympic Games. All of these topics were discussed in strict privacy behinds closed doors and away from the prying eyes of the world media.

The video clips and photos of the conference room you may have seen were all captured before the day’s meetings began.

This lack of transparency was not Chicago 2016’s doing – it is a requirement of the IOC and typical of every Evaluation Commission visit in the recent past. This stance was carried through to the final press conference where Chairwoman Nawal El Moutawakel and Gilbert Felli responded to questions as vaguely as possible. Their diplomacy was also very typical.

When asked, the two-member IOC panel barely acknowledged the most critical deficiency of Chicago’s bid – the lack of 100% financial guarantees. An unusual addendum submitted by Chicago 2016 to the IOC designed to address the issue “will be reviewed”.

While the cultural celebrations during the visit are not documented in the final evaluation report – a tool intended to be used by IOC members to make their voting decision – some conclusions drawn from these exhibitions may find their way into more technical findings.

El Moutawakel said at the closing press conference that “from the moment we went through all the boulevards in this vibrant city, we felt there was a very strong backing of this bid.”

That impression may lead to stronger wording in the “public support” section of the evaluation report – typically about three paragraphs long.

She also talked about the dedication of strong business leaders in Chicago that attended the cultural evening on Monday night; this might lead to a comment in the one-page “summary” section of the roughly 8-page report.

Still, the members of this small committee may carry some personal influence over other voting IOC members who weren’t in Chicago and verbal accounts will likely carry more weight than a written report. Unconfirmed rumors were circulating that El Moutawakel reached her daughter in Morocco by cell phone Monday night so that she could chat with Oprah Winfrey. If true, words aren’t required to describe that her conversation with the talk show host had a special personal impact.

With the absence of any fundamental information gleaned from the hours of closed-door meetings, we’re left to evaluate the visit based on the aesthetics. And there are several.

Signage was plentiful, and clearly had some impact based on El Moutawakel comment on support. Street and business signage was abundant in the downtown area surrounding the Fairmont Hotel where the IOC was based for the visit. One huge banner hung from the bridge crossing the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue. They were also visible at several venue sites – but not all.

Surprisingly void of Chicago 2016 decoration was the McCormick Place Convention Center, one of the most critical and largest venues in the plan. An unrelated conference was underway and the building was full of signage for that event – clearly an obstacle to the bid’s visit plans. One bid representative defended the situation by remarking that it was more about “the spirit”, but however you look at it – the building seemed very un-Olympic.

O’Hare Airport, the main transportation hub for the proposed Games, also lacked a significant amount of signage or displays. But there was one nice touch – at departure time there were occasional announcements from Gold Medal Olympians mentioning the bid and thanking listeners for visiting.

Other modes of transportation were different. Many taxis, buses, shuttles and bus shelters featured an “Imagine” banner – some buses were “wrapped” in Chicago 2016 colors.

The visuals with the greatest impact were clearly on the buildings across Millennium Park from the Art Institute where IOC members were dining. Windows were lit up to display variations of “Chicago 2016” – even the iconic Smurfit-Stone building (a.k.a. Diamond Building) displayed multiple 2016’s across the angled diamond roof – I can’t figure out how they pulled that off. Separately, another building displayed the Chicago Star logo – a stunning display.

According to Chicago 2016 up to 70 Olympians were paraded in front of the Evaluation Team – most notable were Michael Jordan (on video), Nadia Comaneci and Greg Louganis.

The bid team also claimed that up to 250 media personnel were accredited for the visit – mostly local. Up to 30 international media credentials were assigned but there seemed to be less than 20 foreign journalist and photographers on the scene. These numbers are used to gauge interest in the bid but many media outlets are cutting back travel budgets during the global economic crisis.

It’s difficult to know if some of the more detailed efforts will have an impact. At Soldier Field, a stadium that would be used for Olympic football that was part of the venue tour, the field with dormant winter grass was painted bright green. And the Chicago Star logo was applied to center field.

Famous Buckingham Fountain was turned on a couple of weeks early for viewing by the IOC members. Fresh flowers lined the streets and areas adjacent to the venues. Some road repairs and general roadway clean up also took place.

George Hirthler, Senior Strategist for the bid said when the visit began “I love going first. You get the opportunity to set the bar as high as you can.”

The bar is now set very high and the other three cities – Tokyo, Rio and Madrid – will have to work to keep pace with Chicago 2016.

Chairwoman El Moutawakel’s final words of the trip were “good luck, Chicago”.

Perhaps some of that would help a bit too.