Going the Distance

Houston's John Kelley has pursued his dream of bringing the Olympics to Houston for years, despite all odds. Now he's official.

The roads to Olympic glory -- or at least the roads to the opportunity to host Olympic glory -- are many and varied.

In Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, for instance, the cities' mayors got together earlier this summer to announce a joint bid to be the site of the Summer Olympics in the year 2012. Gearing up for a fight against a half-dozen American cities seeking the same honor, the mayors announced a prestigious corporate team that included the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, such large businesses as NationsBank and a slew of locally important government and private groups.

As cameras and scribbling reporters recorded every move, the officials announced that local business leaders had pledged to spend $6 million just on the effort to be named the American city that would then compete -- at a cost of many more millions of dollars -- against cities in other countries to be the host.

But those Beltway officials weren't the only U.S. aspirants working hard to attract the world's largest and most celebrated athletic competition, a billion-dollar festival that focuses the planet's attention on a single city for a summer month every four years.

Right about the time the D.C. and Baltimore people were preparing their press conference, the man who leads Houston's Olympic hopes was engaging in the same noble quest. He was trying to round up enough orange juice and bagels to feed 300 or so gymnasts.

Not surprisingly, he had succeeded. And just as unsurprisingly, former city councilman John Kelley was damn proud of it.

Just a few days after mayors Marion Barry and Kurt Schmoke had outlined their Fortune 500-laden project, Kelley sat in Rudi Lechner's German restaurant on the west side and reeled off statistics concerning the Junior Pan American Gymnastic Championships (in Houston), statistics that he apparently expected to be as mind-boggling to the listener as those related to a moon landing, with corporate star power at least as bright as any Olympic bid put together by some bunch of suits from the East Coast:

"We got Luby's to help us out with a discount, and they gave us a good deal. The Radisson Hotel also," he growled. "The Radisson gave us a very good deal -- they'll feed [the contestants and coaches] a full breakfast every day, and then Luby's is a half-block away, so we'll walk 'em over there every night for dinner. And Randalls is going to be at the gym every day with a full refrigerated truck, with 21,000 oranges, 21,000 apples, 300 fresh bagels with cream cheese, 22,000 orange-juice cans -- and Coca-Cola, I'm hoping they'll let me -- well, in the morning I'll know, but I'm working on having 75 cases of Minute Maid there."

Discounts at a Luby's cafeteria -- not to mention the oh-so-tantalizing possibility of 75 cases of Minute Maid -- may not have the glamour of six-figure donations from financial heavyweights like NationsBank, but in the nuts-and-bolts Olympic politicking that Kelley has now made his life, they may work just as well.

And if, in the year 2012, the world does indeed come to Houston, chief among those who would deserve the credit would be the 65-year-old Kelley, who's been a run-of-the-mill businessman, a late-in-life two-term city councilman with a throwback, old-pol style, a boxer who retains the raffishness of a gym rat, and the father-in-law of the Olympian who still makes a great living out of being America's sweetheart, Mary Lou Retton.

In any debate over such visionary projects as hosting the Olympic Games, there are hurdles to get over before engaging in such back-and-forth as how best to move visitors around the city. The very first hurdle, of course, is whether the city should host the Olympics. In the case of Houston, that first hurdle is Mount Everest, K-2 and Mount McKinley combined.

Much of the world -- not to mention the effete European elite who ultimately choose Olympic host cities -- is still reeling from the 1996 games in Atlanta, held in an oppressively hot and sticky Southern U.S. city filled with brash chamber-of-commerce types willing to sell every square inch possible to corporate advertisers in their naked quest to be considered "an international city."

Just to differentiate Houston from that classless crowd, the 1996 Games featured a party hosted by someone who would be sure to show the International Olympic Committee voters that we here in Houston are nothing like the quick-buck artists who put on the Atlanta show. Anyone sneering at nouveau-riche America would no doubt have their impressions corrected by the party thrown by Houston's Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale, the annoying king of furniture-store TV ads that are as inane as they are cheap.

You want class? Mattress Mac offered not only Texas barbecue. Not only giant TV screens. He also offered Larry Hagman, the guy who played J.R. Ewing on the TV series Dallas. Take that, Atlanta.

Of course, the question of whether Houston is sufficiently glamorous to appease the IOC is really, in the scheme of things, a secondary question as to whether it's a good idea. Whether Houstonians want to bother at all is something much more basic.

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