Commentary

Health care and Chicago's bid

Olympic officials and Chicago reps know the stakes. Maybe the president does, too

Originally Published: September 17, 2009
By Tom Farrey | ESPN

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Copenhagen is a stage for the beleaguered prince, not the besieged king. So for now, President Obama is taking a pass on joining his old friends from Chicago on Oct. 2 in Denmark, where the lords of the Olympic rings, as readily swayed by political celebrity as they once were by bid-city graft, will vote on which hungry (small "h") hamlet gets to throw them a multibillion-dollar party in 2016.

"I promise you, we are fired up about this," Obama said Wednesday afternoon on the South Lawn of the White House at what amounted to a pep rally for the U.S. bid to play host to the Summer Games seven years from now, which unlike the other three finalists will be without its head of state at the big International Olympic Committee meeting. "I would make the case in Copenhagen personally, if I weren't so firmly committed to making real the promise of quality, affordable health care for every American."

Too bad. Because a Chicago Olympics could do as much to reform health care in this country as anything he's arguing over with Republicans at the moment.

That legislation his rivals on Capitol Hill are furiously trying to kill, or at least amend to the liking of their lobbyists? That's about sick care, who has to pay for what when folks need to see a doctor. Health care is about preventing illness so you don't have to see a doctor nearly as much. It's about keeping bodies from breaking down so they don't become a drag on the system, the economy -- as well as the individual himself or herself.

And there's no better way to do that than getting children to fall in love with sports, as participants, so that lifetime patterns of fitness are established. Heart disease treatment costs more than $4,000 a year. A gym membership costs $400 a year. 'Nuf said.

[+] EnlargePresident Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama & Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner Kersee
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesThe Obamas seem to understand the need for a new focus on youth sports. On Wednesday, they were joined by Jackie Joyner-Kersee and April Holmes, among others.

The baller-in-chief seems to get the connection. He also seems to get the role the federal government can play in helping create the conditions that will get kids off the couch, especially in urban cities where sports options are limited and the obesity crisis is real. Before about 100 reporters and cameras, and flanked by current and former Olympians, Obama spoke for the first time about the White House Office on Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport, a new, permanent entity created in June at the urging of the Chicago 2016 leaders.

"This office does the work of coordinating with federal agencies to support and promote Olympic and Paralympic Games, but it also works to support and promote the Olympic spirit," he said. "We've been working hand in hand with Chicago 2016, the U.S. Olympic Committee, Olympians and Paralympians -- some of whom have joined us here today -- to get our young Americans active and involved in sports. Because we want to do more than just bring the Olympic Games to America. We want them to create a lasting legacy here in America."

Yes, it's feel-good rhetoric designed for political effect, to help Chicago compete with the other finalist cities (Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro). "Sport for All" is a stated IOC ideal, the notion being that sport is a human right that should be available to all people regardless of race, social class or sex.

But the Chicago 2016 people have also done some promising work, already. They've helped create and support World Sport Chicago, whose aims are similar to those of the White House office formed by Obama, only with a city focus. Its officials have reached out to the national governing bodies (NGBs) of badminton, wrestling, swimming, gymnastics and table tennis to bring programming to kids from neighborhoods starved for sport options beyond hoop, hoop and hoop. WSC officials claim their initiatives have so far touched 30,000 children.

With most sports in this country, the grassroots are a disjointed mess that compromises athletic development. There are NGB initiatives, local clubs, AAU programs, park districts, YMCAs, school facilities (albeit never enough), groups with capital or expertise that want to make a difference but don't know where to turn.

"Who's bringing it all together? There is nobody," said Mike Conley, WSC president and a former Olympic triple jump gold medalist. "If you can link all the resources, you can really make a dent in increasing the popularity of those sports."

That's what WSC does. It connects the silos so that more kids, and raw talent, flow into second-tier sports.

"You couldn't stop any kid on the street and say, 'So, what's the road to become an Olympian?'" Conley told me on a park bench outside the White House gates, shortly before he joined Obama at the ceremony. "They'd have no idea. If you say football, it's obvious: 'Oh yeah, I'm going to go to college, go into the draft, become a No. 1 pick.' They can tell you everything, even salaries. But with some of the Olympic sports, unless you're exposed to them, no one knows what the road map is."

[+] EnlargeRichard Daley and President Barack Obama
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesChicago mayor Richard M. Daley knows what an Olympics in his city could do to make sports accessible.

Conley grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he won state high school championships in the 1970s. Back then, the track scene pulsated with emerging talent. Youth sports was a priority of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Jesse Owens lived in town, and was a huge advocate for such programs. So was Ralph Metcalfe, who finished second to Owens in the 100 and won gold in the 4x100 relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then went on to be a congressman. But by 1980, all three men were dead, and the Chicago track scene began to collapse. Now, the city, despite its huge population, rarely produces state high school champions.

That's an embarrassing irony for a city bidding for an event whose defining sport is track and field. So, one of the things WSC has done is partner with USA Track and Field and the office of the mayor (Daley's son Richard M.) to create a summer track program that serves kids who want to try the sport. It's free, and spikes are banned to make it accessible to kids of lesser means. More than 400 kids joined teams representing 29 of the 50 wards. Olympian legends Bob Beamon and Gail Devers were brought to town for coaching clinics.

The World Sports Chicago model is one that's now being endorsed by mayors around the country. But watching Obama's speech Wednesday, one gets the sense that the viability of that model -- and perhaps the effectiveness of Obama's new office of Olympic and youth sport -- rides on the IOC vote in Copenhagen. If the U.S. gets the Summer Games for the first time since 1996, WSC will acquire the momentum to extend its local offerings and do something compelling that, if successful, could be replicated elsewhere.

If Chicago loses the vote, it'll be tough to get NGBs to support its experiment. And it'll be hard to argue for any resources for the White House office, which is chaired by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a heavyweight in the administration, but currently has no dedicated staff or budget.

"Chicago's winning is very important," said Anita DeFrantz, an IOC delegate on hand for the Obama ceremony. "It'll make a huge difference to us in this country, and the children of this country."

DeFrantz was one of the fortunate. She was a student walking across the Connecticut College campus when a member of the rowing team suggested she try the sport. The tall, wide-shouldered girl went on to win Olympic bronze as captain of the U.S. team in Montreal in 1976. There are scores of potential champions in second-tier sports all across the country, just waiting to be matched up with the right game. Think Shani Davis, the first African-American athlete to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Games. He grew up on South Side of Chicago, where his mother worked for a lawyer and amateur speedskating official who hooked him up with a club in the 'burbs. The rest is Olympic history.

World Sport Chicago has a nifty "find a sport" tool on its Web site, with a list of local clubs. Kids in every major city should have such a resource.

After his speech, Obama and his wife, Michelle, who will represent him in Copenhagen, took in three demonstrations by Olympic athletes. They marveled at judokas throwing each other to a blue mat that had been laid down on the lush grass not far from the deluxe playscape they had installed for their daughters. At the fencing demo, the president grabbed a plastic light saber and playfully barked "En garde!" before the assembled cameras. Then he watched as an elite gymnast flipped her way across the balance beam.

"I can't even do that on ground!" he laughed. "I'd tear a hamstring!"

It was good times all around -- sun, smiles and sound bites. The assembled children from local inner-city schools, dressed as they were in khakis and Chicago 2016 T-shirts, were learning how to lunge with swords, and walk that narrow beam. But it was easy to wonder what'll happen next, once they return to neighborhoods where access to these three sports is limited at best.

An hour later, the photo op over, the mats had been ripped up, the equipment removed. The South Lawn had been restored to its manicured, undisturbed grace, as if nothing had happened.

A mirage, perhaps, that can be made real only by good news in Copenhagen.

Tom Farrey is an ESPN correspondent and author of "Game On: How the Pressure to Win at All Costs Endangers Youth Sports and What Parents Can Do About It," published in August in paperback. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.

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