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.

He's used that method in connection with a series of events he has brought to town, all of which drew little notice locally, but all of which, he says, are part of his master plan.

He's brought in, or is soon to bring in, such events as the national table tennis games (held July 15, in case you missed them), boxing matches between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Russia, and the annual dinner honoring every coach of an American Olympic team. He plans to host 40 "Olympic-style events" before the site-selection vote comes.

The coaches dinner, he says, "is the biggest gala in sports. All of the Olympic sports have their own coach, and each one will be here to receive an award. We'll have the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and maybe George Bush, we've got Lee Brown and Robert Eckels's names on the invitation, and we've got Tommy Lasorda as the keynote speaker."

While the average Joe on the street might be too starry-eyed to do much but ogle at a dinner featuring both Tommy Lasorda and the coach of the country's synchronized swimming team, Kelley will be working hard that night.

He'll be working hard because he knows Houston can't host the Olympic Games until it gets approval from the 103 or so members of the U.S. Olympic Committee. (The number of members will likely grow soon, as new Olympic sports are added.)

The USOC will study detailed proposals from potential hosts, including information about their facilities, transportation and lodging plans, and winnow the field to a handful of cities in March 2002. That fall, the USOC will pick the one American city that will submit a bid to the International Olympic Committee, which will choose the 2012 host sometime in 2005.

The Dallas suburb of Arlington is making a push for the Games, but Kelley isn't worried. "There are five votes from Texas on the USOC, and we've got four of them, baby, guaranteed," he says. The support is the result of a deal he brokered that saw Houston withdraw its bid to host the 2007 Pan Am games in favor of San Antonio.

Besides such deals, he has his charm offensive -- "When the table tennis people were here," he says, "they thought I was the world's greatest table tennis enthusiast. And you know, I am, because I love anything in the Olympics." And he also has a network of operatives gathering information.

"You hear stuff. I got a couple of G2s out there," he says, using the old Army term for intelligence-gatherers. "We'll get with each other and say, 'What'd you hear about Washington/Baltimore?' Or with some other city, 'Yeah, they've gotta get rid of that gal on the committee,' or 'That bond deal may not pass.' In Cincinnati, for example, they're having big problems just with locating a highway off-ramp, and you've got to get that settled, because you have to submit a plan with your bid that shows everything in terms of how you're going to move people."

He's convinced, he says, that if the vote were held today, Houston would be one of the three or so cities to make the initial cut at the USOC.

And as that becomes clearer, he believes, the local corporate world will jump on board. Although he'd deny it, there's a good Irish grudge building in Kelley for what he envisions happening.

"Right now things are kind of lukewarm [in Houston's business community] -- in some places they're excited, in some they're not," he says. "But just imagine when the announcement comes that the candidate is Houston, you're gonna have everyone coming and saying, 'Let me get on that thing -- I didn't do any work before, but let me help out now.' "

He says he welcomes DeMontrond being named chair of the committee -- "I'm the president and he's the chairman, and he's a real nice fella" -- but again, a little resentment creeps through.

"I'm not rich -- I'm not broke, but I'm not like Bob McNair or Chuck Watson," he says, referring to two multimillionaires who are trying to lure an NFL team to Houston. "For the business community, it's probably better that they have a name they know to deal with. That don't bother me. He [DeMontrond] can do some things I can't. I don't know if he lives in River Oaks or not, but he's someone that the people there know, and it's easier to get cooperation than if you have some poor boy walk up."

(His "poor boy" act may not be as believable now. He's just received a $100,000-a-year contract from the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau to attract the Olympics and other sporting events.)

Kelley says he's raised $550,000 "by my ownself," but is resigned to the fact that the big boys don't consider him part of their club. "People like him [DeMontrond] can make higher-echelon phone calls than me. The people who wouldn't return my phone calls will return his. The business community didn't have faith in me or in my organizational ability ... so they asked someone to come in because he has money. But he can't get the vote. I can get the vote. It's like when I ran for City Council, the mayor and the [Greater Houston] Partnership didn't back me, but the people did, because they knew I was a worker."

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