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President Obama's answer shows wrong-headed U.S. attitude

December 3, 2010 | 11:05 am

I'd like to add a few things to my take on the voting for the 2018 and 2022 soccer World Cups, which appeared in Friday's print and online editions of the Chicago Tribune.

(For that story, click here)

1.  What was President Obama thinking when he said, "I think it was the wrong decision'' when asked by reporters Thursday for a comment on Qatar having won the right to host the 2022 World Cup over the United States?

I understand this was a chance encounter between the president and the White House press corps, so he couldn't have prepared an answer.  But his reaction smacked of the attitude -- a combination of entitlement, superiority and sour grapes -- that has made the United States terra non grata in the international sports world.

Couldn't the president simply have congratulated Qatar on its historic triumph while expressing disappointment that the U.S. bid had failed?  What he actually said, effectively belittling Qatar with a wrong-headed answer, can do future U.S. bids for the World Cup no good, as the people who vote for these things have long memories.

President Obama also did Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid no good with his 11th hour fly-by and soporific speech in the final presentation to International Olympic Committee voters 14 months ago in Copenhagen.

Yes, the gripes of some IOC members about being held on buses because of security involved for the president's late arrival were childish.  But the planning for his brief visit made Obama the only head of state whose presence caused significant inconvenience. After he committed to the trip, he should have done what his peers have in recent IOC host elections: stay long enough to do personal lobbying for votes.

You can say all you want about how ridiculous it is for presidents and prime ministers to fawn over the self-appointed grandees who vote for Olympic and World Cup hosts -- and every word would be justified.  But if you are in this game, you have to live with its absurd rules and understand the silly presumptions of the culture that surrounds it.

2.  The IOC all but said it is too hot for an Olympics in the Qatari summer when it announced in 2008 that the Summer Games must take place in a period from July 15 - Aug. 31, the dates favored by global broadcasters.  In its bid for the 2016 Olympics, Doha, Qatar had proposed dates of Oct. 14-30 because of the extreme heat in the desert summer.

That gave the IOC a reason not to include Doha among the four finalists for 2016, even though its bid got a higher technical score in the IOC's preliminary evaluation of the bidders (tied for third with Chicago) than eventual winner Rio, which was fifth.

So how can the World Cup go to Qatar in June and July?

The Qataris have promised a cooling system in all the stadiums, training areas and fan sites to keep the temperature at 78 degrees.  As my colleague Alan Abrahamson noted after getting an on-site preview, the system works.

And why wouldn't that work for an Olympics?

So many Olympic events, especially endurance events like the marathon and cycling road races, take place outside stadiums, and cooling those vast areas might require putting a dome over a large chunk of the small country (don't count out such an idea; Qatar has the money and the will to do it.)

Maybe some of those events could be run at night, when the intense desert sun would not be a factor.  I don't think the Qataris, with their enormous natural gas reserves, would have trouble fueling a lighting system.

Yes, there have been other very hot Olympics.  The first day in Atlanta (1996) was unbearable.  It was well over 100 degrees on the floor of the Barcelona (1992) Olympic Stadium during several days of the track competition.  Athens (2004) temperatures frequently hit the mid-90s in the afternoon, but the dry nights were beautiful.  And Beijing (2008) mixed heat, oppressive humidity and pollution.

There is another issue that should be a more significant impediment to an Olympics in Qatar.

Beginning in 1984, the country has sent an aggregate 98 athletes in 10 sports to the past seven Summer Olympics.

Not one was female.

And changing a culture may be harder than coping with a climate.

3.  Qatar's soccer team finds itself in a similar position to that of the United States when it was awarded the 1994 World Cup in 1988.

At that point, the U.S. men had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950.  And the team would need a dramatic victory in the final qualifying match against tiny Trinidad & Tobago to make the 1990 World Cup.

Qatar has tried unsuccessfully to qualify for every World Cup since 1978.  The Qataris made it to the final round of Asian qualifying for 2010, finishing a distant fourth in a five-team group, after being eliminated in the first round of qualifying for 2006. 

4.  Who knows how much final presentations count in these host city votes?

But I do know Qatar's was brilliant in showing off the modernity and global connection of a country many still see as an isolated, sandy empire.

(To watch it, click here).

Its Emir and bid committee president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, spoke beautiful English and French. (He also has a Facebook page). It brought out Bora Milutinovic, the citizen of the world who has coached five countries' teams (including the U.S.) in the World Cup, to tell the audience in Spanish why the compact Qatar plan would increase the level of play by decreasing the amount of travel. Its bid CEO also spoke English and Spanish.

(By comparison, the U.S. bid team spoke only English.)

It brought out an Iraqi to tell what the World Cup would mean to the entire Middle East, a region which has never hosted a World Cup or an Olympics.

And its final speaker was a woman, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of her country’s foundation for education, science and development, who pulled no punches in opening her presentation by asking simply, "When?" as the word appeared in capital letters on a large video screen behind her.  

A few minutes later, hectoring FIFA voters the way Brazilian President Lula had done to IOC voters last October about bringing the first Olympics to South America, she repeated the question, then answered it by saying, "The time has come. The time is now."

The voters agreed.

-- Philip Hersh

 

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