How Rio De Janeiro is like Barack Obama

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Well, the word is in for the 2016 Olympics, and it’s not so pretty for my hometown, Chicago. After three rounds of voting in Copenhagen, Denmark, the International Olympic Committee announced that Rio de Janeiro will host the games, making it the first Olympics to be held in South America. That alone is news worth cheering.


But conservative American commentators, particularly Matt Drudge, have somehow convinced themselves that this optical defeat for president Barack Obama is cause to promote a strange sort of anti-Americanism (since when is the crime-ridden, heavily black and latino Rio the bastion of all things Republican?). Writing at Commentary magazine, Jennifer Rubin sneers:

[Obama] simply can’t help himself. It’s the same force of ego that drives him on to those TV talk shows again and again and that imagines that a grand speech with no content and no appeal outside his base will be a game changer on health-care reform.

Now, I was on record as thinking the president’s 20-hour jaunt to Copenhagen was ill-advised. And over at Foreign Policy, Annie Lowrey looked into the troubles London is having as it prepares for the 2012 Olympics and concludes: “The recession is bedeviling the Olympic effort” in unexpected, expensive ways. But there’s no reason to rub salt on the Americans’ wounds.

It may be, however, worth parsing just how Chicago lost—on the first round of balloting—and why Rio emerged triumphant. From ESPN:

The final result was decisive: Rio beat Madrid by 66 votes to 32. Chicago got just 18 votes in the first round, with Tokyo squeezing into the second round with 22. Madrid was leading after the first round with 28 votes, while Rio had 26.

In the second round, Tokyo was eliminated with just 20 votes. Madrid got 29, qualifying it for the final round face-off with Rio, which by then already had a strong lead, with 46 votes.

This voting pattern mirrors somewhat the dynamic in the Iowa caucuses held in January 2008. The highly watched political competition hinged not just on who was one’s first choice for president in the Democratic primary, but who was a second and third choice. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s supporters, for example, were reported to have cut a backroom deal with the Obama campaign to throw their votes to Obama if and when their fourth-place candidate didn’t reach viability. And even as many Iowans supported Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or even Joe Biden for president, their second choice was often Obama—allowing the Illinois senator to rack up extra delegates in certain precincts, and ultimately a decisive victory.

In the case of the Olympics, Chicago was the unlucky Richardson, and Rio more like Obama. Rio, remember, was not ahead at the first balloting—Madrid had a two-vote lead. But it seems that Brazil was the second choice for virtually all of the voters who backed Chicago. On the later rounds, it surged ahead of Tokyo and squarely beat Madrid. Maybe the Chicago delegation could have cut its own deal with Tokyo's supporters, or maybe Madrid's. But it wasn't so. Chicago and Obama are both, for now, are unhappy campers—but both will get another chance to win the world’s favor.


John Edwards? Not so much.


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.