By Makuna Tande
A confrontation of epic proportions took place recently during the annual meeting of the Presidents of the Associations National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) which held in Abuja, Nigeria, from July 5 to July 8, 2009. 54 of the most powerful men and women in sports were meeting to chart the course of sports on the continent.
Makuna Tande, Pele and 1968 US Olympic Gold Medalist Ron Freeman.
This year’s meeting was extra significant because it was an election year and there was a rare challenge to the incumbent president. More significant was the fact that 2009 is the 2016 Olympic Games host city selection year, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had designated the Abuja meeting as an official Candidate City presentation event.
This meant that the candidate country (city) combatants – the US (Chicago), Brazil (Rio), Japan (Tokyo) and Spain (Madrid) – would be in fine fighting form. Abuja represented the last campaign opportunity for the candidate countries before the IOC votes for the host city on October 2, 2009, in Copenhagen. Africa boosts 17 IOC selection committee voting members in its ranks, so competition for each vote is fierce among candidate cities.
After over two years on the trail, the combatants in this ultra high stakes competition are familiar with each other’s tactics. But there are always surprises as each candidate city tries to gain an upper hand. Head-to-head events like Abuja provide the perfect showcase for surprises. Abuja did not disappoint. Whispers about Pele leading the Brazil delegation to the event greeted the US team upon arrival. Going against Pele on any occasion is a mountain of a task. As the newest member of the US team, I felt almost overwhelmed. But I was comforted by the surprise that we had in our bag.
The tension was palpable as one-on-one campaigning gathered pace on the opening. The Japanese and Brazilians seemed to favor the pack approach – multiple members of their teams cornering an NOC member and delivering their pitch. The US and Spain employed the solo approach – team members separately fanning across the floor. Each team hopes to chat with as many IOC and NOC members as possible. Our strategy was to educate as many NOC and IOC members as possible on the Chicago bid and to build solid relationships.
Presentation day was July 6. Each city was allotted 15 minutes and Chicago would go first. We already knew that Pele was in the house. Chicago delivered a message on diversity and inclusion, and a city waiting for the world. We added our core message of a green, compact and efficient games. And then we presented our surprise: a video message from the US president tailored to the ANOCA audience and Africa. His message was about the Olympic spirit and the US reaching out to the world. We concluded our presentation to rapturous applause with the ANOCA delegates high-fiving each other. The US message was super effective.
Tokyo took to the floor but they had no counter to the US message.
Then it was Brazil’s turn.
Makuna Tande with General Lassana Palenfo, President of ANOCA.
The crush of photographers taking pictures of Pele as he readied for the stage delayed the start of the Brazil presentation by several minutes. The Brazil presentation was about a Party in Rio and the right of South America to have a turn to host an Olympic Games. Pele, in halting English, told the story about a boy who wanted to grow up to be like Pele. The applause was fever pitch as the Brazil team ascended the stage. After the Brazil and USA highs, Spain could not muster attention for their presentation. This was a duel between the USA and Brazil; between Chicago and Rio; and between Obama and Pele. The front runners are entrenched.
Pele made an appearance at the President’s Reception and there was instant and utter pandemonium. There was immediate disorder as everyone wanted to touch him, greet him and take a picture with him. For a few minutes I feared for his life as the crush of people closed in on him. Though an opponent in a unique contest, I realized a significant Grandpa moment. I will be able to tell my grand kids that I hung out with Pele. A picture would be required proof but how could I with my USA team mates watching? It was a dilemma. Then I heard my friend and team member, Ron Freeman of the 1968 Mexico Olympics Black Power fame, say to me: ‘Do you want to take picture’? We made our way to Pele, Ron was instantly recognized by Pele and Ron introduced me to Pele. Good sportsmanship - the embodiment of the Olympic spirit – is dead if I cannot salute and socialize a true legend because we are in opposing camps.
It was a beautiful stage and competition. Chicago is tied for first or ahead on points. The Chicago message was mature, inclusive and decisive. Rio’s message was vibrant but too reliant on the personality of Pele. Chicago will be hosting our friends from Rio in 2016.
Makuna Tande was part of the US delegation that was in Abuja to make the case for Chicago's olympic bid.