Let the (2016) Games Begin!

Which sports have the best shot at attaining medal status—and which cities may be pulling ahead in the bid to host? The real competition starts long before the opening ceremonies.

By Hampton Stevens

They may be seven years away, but this week was huge for the Olympics of 2016. Delegates from the four cities still in contention to host the games—Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid—gathered for a week of meetings and glad-handing at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Also schmoozing were the leaders of seven global sports federations—the international governing bodies of golf, karate, squash, rugby, baseball, softball, and roller sports—each seeking medal sport status. With the IOC's decisions on who will host in 2016 and what sports will be added that year due in a few months, the conference in Lausanne was a last, best chance to woo IOC members.

For the federations, getting on the Olympic program can mean the difference between their sport being a fringe hobby or a global game. And competition is especially tight this year, with seven sports fighting for two slots and no guarantee that both, or either, will be filled.

So which sports have the best shot? Decades from now, could, say, squash, buoyed by Olympic exposure, become the world's new favorite game? Don't count on it. Squash is an awful spectator sport, hard to follow with that little ball ricocheting everywhere at 100+ mph. The game largely owes its 2016 candidacy to one man, The Prince of Malaysia, Tunku Imran—a squash player and patron who also happens to be a member of the IOC.

Karate may be a stronger contender, as it doesn’t require the construction of any special kind of facilities, and could draw a wide audience because it’s practiced around the world. The style of karate under consideration is a "non-contact" version – meaning that competitors pull punches and, as in wrestling, points are awarded for executing specific moves.

Golf, too, has a decent chance, but the Good Walk Spoiled is not without drawbacks. IOC President Jacque Rogge has said he favors sports with the broadest possible appeal, and golf is expensive to play, has an unfortunate history of discrimination and, in a linguistic irony, isn’t very green. Still, the game is played in virtually every country on earth (and even on the moon), and marquee names from the PGA and European Tours are excited about the idea of playing in the Olympics, which would make for big TV ratings for the IOC. In case you were wondering, Tiger Woods will be 40 in 2016, plenty young enough to compete.

Baseball and softball were on the Beijing program, but won't be in London 2012. The IOC voted them out in 2005, in what some allege was a not-very-thinly veiled show of anti-Americanism. At this point, the prospects of getting both sports back onto the program are slim, due to complicated rules concerning gender equity: When both were in the games, they filled two spots on the roster of summer Olympic sports, yet served to fulfill the gender equity requirements for one another. But now, seeking readmission, they are in competition for those two spots not only with one another, but with five other sports. And not enough men play softball, nor women baseball, for either to earn acceptance on its own.

International Baseball Federation President Harvey Schiller did propose that the two sports jointly submit a request for inclusion, essentially as men's and women's versions of the same sport. But International Softball President Don Porter refused, insisting their sport is not "women's baseball." True enough. Softball players aren't the ones getting caught juicing. But that baseball/softball distinction, so clear to American eyes, can be lost on the rest of the world, and the two disciplines will most likely split votes. Ah well, maybe in 2020.

For possible dark horses, look at Rugby Sevens and Roller Sports. The former is a shortened form of rugby, already globally popular and a one-time Olympic event. The latter, Roller Sports, is a belated attempt by the IOC to embrace extreme and/or action sports and attract the two—count 'em, two—generations who've grown up with them. Whatever the Winter Olympics does on ice and snow, Roller Sports does on wheels—speed-skating, roller hockey, inline downhill and freestyle. Don't scoff. Inline-skating is cheap, gender-neutral, easy to officiate and could make for compelling TV.

But the jockeying among sports is only a skirmish compared to the bigger battle. With billions of dollars and incalculable prestige at stake, the real intrigue concerns who will host: Tokyo, Chicago, Rio, or Madrid.

The bid team from Tokyo was crystal-clear about its strong suit—money. Bid leader Ichiro Kono emphasized that Tokyo is flush. "Let there be no mistake," he said, "$4 billion is in the bank today." Japan's bid is boosted by Tokyo's preexisting transportation and security infrastructure—the priciest part of hosting the games. The city wouldn't need to be overhauled, à la Athens and Beijing.

Tokyo's presentation at Lausanne sounds like geek heaven: 3-D goggles enabled IOC members to virtually explore the planned 100,000-seat, solar-powered Olympic Stadium, along with the incredibly compact site plan (an amazing 97% of venues within in a five-mile radius of the Olympic Village).

To be truly compelling, though, an Olympics needs more than nerd appeal. There must be a backstory, some sort of meta-narrative. In China, for instance, the world watched an ancient nation coming of age. In Athens, we marveled at the Olympic spirit brought home. In 1964, less than 20 years after VJ Day, Tokyo hosted the first ever Asian Olympics. The games signaled Japan's return to the family of nations and reemergence as an economic power.

Besides money, there doesn't seem to be a good reason for Japan to host this time around. Plus, Tokyo has proximity issues. The IOC won't want another Far Eastern city to host so soon after Beijing.

Madrid, too, has proximity problems. With the 2012 Summer Games in London, a Madrid Olympics would mean consecutive Olympiads staged less than 1,000 miles apart. That's unlikely. Madrid's best hope is that retired IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch is still pulling strings and calling in his last favors to get one more Olympics for his beloved Spain.

Rio de Janeiro did very well at Lausanne. The IOC is roughly as secretive as the Vatican, but GamesBids.com, an Olympic watch website, believes Rio has made itself a leading contender.

It's a nice thought. South America has never hosted an Olympics, so there's your narrative. Certainly, the IOC would love to expand into Brazil, an emerging nation already possessing the world's tenth largest economy. Sadly for Rio, "emerging" also means "poor." IOC members are not known for disliking creature comforts, and may think that Rio, already hosting a World Cup in 2014, can't afford the hospitality to which they are accustomed. IOC President Jacque Rogge did say recently that a "cultural legacy" matters more than finances when choosing an Olympic host. Fine words, but Rio still feels like a longshot.

The favorite, since bidding began, has been Chicago. At least, that's the conventional wisdom. It's geography again. The past three Olympics have been in Australia, Greece, and China. Thus, the theory goes, it's the USA's "turn" to host.

As for the Windy City's narrative, a certain Chicago politician's move to the White House provided it. Obviously, all presidents have the power to help an Olympic bid. Obama showed that by creating a new White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic, and Youth Sport a day before the U.S. bid team made their presentation in Lausanne. But Obama, and especially his wild popularity overseas, changed the dynamics of the selection process. The lure of an Obamalympics may simply be too much for the IOC to resist: Awarding the games to his adopted hometown (and scheduled for what would be his last summer in office, in the event that he's reelected), would let the IOC, on behalf of the world, thank the American people for electing him. Yet another case of the president's near-preternatural ability to put himself at the center of events.

So here’s a final breakdown: 
Chicago is the favorite, but the IOC under Jacques Rogge has been unpredictable (Right, Paris 2012?). The race is much closer than most people think. Call it 7-5 in favor of the Hog Butcher. Rio de Janeiro has gone from a 20-1 afterthought to a solid 3-1. Impressive work. Before the crash, Tokyo was 15-1, easy. Now it's close third at 4-1. Madrid: Someone has to be the underdog. The lovely Spanish capital is looking unlikely at 12-1.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/let-the-2016-games-begin/307580/