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Chicago Olympics: Why Pat Ryan Was Tapped To Run The Bid

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CHICAGO — Pat Ryan isn't a gold medalist, like the leader of Madrid's bid committee. Nor does he have a long history with the International Olympic Committee, as the heads of Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo's organizations do.

What he does have is intelligence, focus, an even temper and a deep sense of civic responsibility – and that's made him the perfect fit for Chicago's efforts to win the 2016 Olympics.

"The work Pat has done has raised the bar to an unprecedented level," said Robert Fasulo, chief of international relations for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We've never had such strength behind a bid and unity of purpose between the (USOC), a city and a bid committee, and I think a lot of that has to do with the strength of a leader like Pat Ryan."

Chicago is locked in a tight contest with Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo going into the IOC's vote Friday in Copenhagen.

Ryan has always enjoyed the Olympics – track and field was one of his sports at his suburban Milwaukee high school – and went to the 1996 Games in Atlanta as a spectator. But he had no idea the enormity of the task he was undertaking when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley asked him to explore a bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Most other cities choose former Olympians or people well-versed in the intricacies of the Olympic movement to lead their bid efforts. For Chicagoans, though, the selection of the 72-year-old Ryan made perfect sense.

The small insurance company he began is now Aon Corp., one of the world's largest insurance brokers, and his influence is everywhere in the city. He was the longtime chairman of the board of trustees at his alma mater, Northwestern (where the football field and basketball arena bear his name), and is part-owner of the Chicago Bears.

He and his wife, Shirley, give generously to, among other things, the Art Institute, Lyric Opera and educational initiatives. Ryan, a Republican, also co-chaired President Barack Obama's inauguration committee.

"He just has a capacity for solving problems and seeing what's the best way to tackle them," said Henry Bienen, who retired Aug. 31 after almost 15 years as Northwestern's president. "It's hard to put your finger exactly on what it is. Personality, character, intelligence – probably all of the above. That's why so many people in Chicago have turned to Pat when they need help with something big."

And the task of bringing the Olympics to Chicago was enormous.

The USOC wasn't even sure it wanted to bid for the 2016 Games after New York was turned out in the second round of 2012 voting. The United States wasn't exactly riding a wave of popularity around the world, and some IOC members resented the USOC for its sizable share of Olympic revenues and not engaging with other countries enough.

If the USOC supported a 2016 bid, then-chairman Peter Ueberroth cautioned, it would have to have a strong partnership with city, state and federal officials. And there could be no holes in the bid, like the stadium issue that doomed New York.

That Chicago wasn't well-known added another challenge. Despite being the country's third-largest city, Chicago doesn't have much of an international identity. If it is known, it's usually as the home of Michael Jordan and Al Capone – and not necessarily in that order.

Ryan may not have had Olympic experience, but he built a team that did – 250 years' worth. He brought in people who'd worked at the Olympics and people who competed at them, and together they came up with a new kind of model.

The plan would be compact, putting athletes as close to their venues as possible. It was designed like a blueprint for the actual games, not a rough sketch to be tinkered with if the IOC chose Chicago.

Instead of building grand, architectural masterpieces that would have little use after the games, Chicago would use park land and existing or temporary venues. Its legacy would be generational, not physical, with programs designed to introduce kids to Olympic sports.

"What we all try and do is to make an impact on others," Ryan said. "When you can make an impact on the youth, that even multiplies that because of all of the impact that they can then have on others."

Most importantly, Ryan made it clear to the IOC how badly Chicago wanted the games, how much it valued the Olympic ideals.

If there was an opportunity to meet with IOC members, Ryan and his team were there. He's flown more than 240,000 miles over the last three years, visiting countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and North and South America. As proof of his personal commitment, Ryan doesn't take a salary – though he has a net worth of $1.3 billion. He's also paid for more than 70 percent of his travel.

"The more people know him internationally, the more they respect him. They know he doesn't need to do this," Fasulo said. "He realizes how fortunate he is and, as a result, is working hard for this objective."

Ryan's business savvy has also turned out to be vital.

The IOC requires local governments to guarantee full financial responsibility for the games, so it won't be stuck with the bill if something catastrophic happens. Unlike other countries, however, the U.S. government doesn't do it.

Chicago 2016 devised a unique, $1.4 billion insurance package that it says would cover most losses and be paid out before the $750 million the city and state have pledged. That didn't satisfy the IOC, but it did satisfy Chicago aldermen.

Earlier this month, they voted 49-0 to approve Daley's signing of the host city contract, removing a huge hurdle in the eyes of IOC members.

Though Rio is considered a slight favorite, Chicago has picked up momentum in recent weeks. Not that you'd know it from Chicago 2016, which sticks closely to Ryan's message of confidence and enthusiasm, but never arrogance.

"We use the sports metaphor of not leaving any part of our game on the field and that's how it will be. We will have put every effort into achieving this goal," Ryan said. "If we don't, we won't say, 'Well, we should have, could have, would have done this or that.' We'll have done everything we could have done."

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