Bidding for the Olympics is not unlike competing in a beauty pageant, which is why postcard-pretty locales such as New York and San Francisco are always in the running and cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh are not.
That would also explain why a town like Houston seems like a perennial long shot. According to the committee selecting cities four years ago to host the 2012 summer games, the Texas city apparently had the most sound technical and financial bid. But it had one big strike against it: It was Houston.
So I’m hopeful that San Francisco wins the chance to host the 2016 Summer Olympics for a number of reasons, including two right off the top. It may be the only way the 49ers will ever get a new stadium. And, as Candlestick veterans know, when the opening ceremonies are held, it will likely be the first time in history the Olympic torch is actually blown out.
It’s been too long since the city of St. Francis held a major international event, since Earth Day still hasn’t reached the upper echelon of global interest. San Francisco lost out to New York four years ago largely out of sympathy to the Big Apple’s legacy as the spot of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And there’s little doubt that the Olympic Committee wants a host city that is a world-class tourist destination — one where visitors and athletes aren’t expiring from heat stroke.
Chicago, which is pursuing the games along with San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Houston, is said to be among the cities most aggressively campaigning for the event, but it has already made some missteps along the way. When asked what his pitch would be to Olympic officials, Mayor Richard Daley said he saw it as an opportunity to “showcase Middle America.” Most Europeans couldn't find Middle America on a map, and though they could easily find San Francisco, they know that philosophically and politically, our West Coast haven doesn’t even consider itself part of America.
As part of its enticement package, the Windy City is also touting a “collapsible stadium’’ — ostensibly something that could be easily demolished after the games, but it is a poorly named idea that may not inspire confidence among visitors suffering from security jitters.
Still, that doesn’t mean winning will be easy for San Francisco. Los Angeles has hosted the Olympics twice, and still has a giant, largely unused stadium to show for it. But L.A. turned in something of a miracle while it was home to the 1984 summer games, when people were so concerned about the congestion and traffic that it was the first time the freeways were unclogged.
Yet the ensuing 22 years have hardly added to L.A.’s allure or accessibility.
My dark horse pick is Philadelphia, a great sports town with considerable venues and old American charm that got rave reviews from Olympic site selection committee members when they visited last month. But the notoriously fickle Philly fans have already been criticizing the city’s efforts, and it can’t be lost on the competing cities that Mayor John Street was the only municipal CEO to bag the recent pitch session in San Diego.
Which brings us back to San Francisco. Mayor Gavin Newsom has been going great guns trying to sell The City as an Olympic site, knowing two things: First, he will get all the credit for landing the 2016 games if The City were to win, and second, he will get none of the blame if that happens, since that will fall on whatever poor soul is running San Francisco in 10 years.
Moreover, it’s an entirely winning campaign for his supporters, who believe that bringing jobs and money and visitors to San Francisco is actually a good thing — in direct contrast to some of the so-called progressives, who will counter that the Olympics are a corporate sell-out and that the games will be too costly to stage.
This could be one of the very few times when San Francisco’s reputation as Kooktown U.S.A. could actually help it. As Newsom told me recently: “It’s not like we have to sell the idea that San Francisco marches to its own drummer. They get that.’’ And since the leadership of the Republican Party is almost as unpopular in Europe — and presumably among the international Olympic officials who will be making the final choice of Olympic venue — as it is among the political cognoscenti here, this could be one of those rare opportunities when The City is rewarded for being, well, so very special.
It better hope so, because if Houston wins out, at least one city is going to need an image makeover.