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.

Rice University professor Bob Stein, a longtime expert on city politics, says the establishment has often been leery of Kelley's blunt-spoken, wheeling-dealing style.

"Some people thought he wouldn't be effective representing the city's interests ... because of his style," Stein says.

While some image-conscious local powers-that-be wait cringingly for Kelley to insert his foot in his mouth at some point, Stein points out that their attempts to bypass Kelley have failed to knock him out of the picture. Now he's as official an Olympics ambassador as he's ever likely to be, with his Convention Bureau job.

"He has probably carried the torch for the Olympics earlier and longer than anyone," Stein says. "In the past, he was the only one who thought it was possible to do this, but having convinced others that Houston could have international sports events here, he's now working as part of a larger team."

Another Kelley watcher, who did not want his name used, says there is "a general feeling among the downtown people" that Kelley was given the job at the Convention Bureau as a way of keeping him supervised. (Jordy Tollett, the convention bureau's acting executive director, did not return calls regarding Kelley.)

"Let's face it, no one who meets John Kelley is exactly bowled over by his brilliance," the Kelley watcher said. "But the guy refuses to go away."

Kelley did take a lot of people by surprise with his Council election in 1993. A little-known businessman who owned tire-and-automotive stores and invested in real estate, he was soundly beaten when he ran for an at-large Council seat in 1991.

Two years later, he entered the race for District G, which includes the rarefied air of River Oaks. In this area, represented for years by the always exquisitely coiffed Christin Hartung, few people expected anything to get in the way of Hartung's plans that, after her retirement, her husband, a former state senator, would successfully run to fill her position. Instead, Kelley got 58 percent of the vote in a runoff.

Kelley was a bit more successful than Hartung in getting his spouse as a replacement, by the way. Just before the filing deadline, when no major opposition to his re-election had surfaced, he announced his retirement and his wife filed for the seat.

His four years on the Council were distinguished mainly by his preference to attend to his duties not at City Hall, but at the unfashionably retro bar and restaurant of the Allen Park Inn. There he received bureaucrats who made the trek out from their offices.

Foremost on his mind, of course, was the Olympics. He urged the Parks Department to build any new facilities, such as pools, to Olympic specs ("You can just add a foot or so at little cost, but then you can say something like, 'we've got 30 workout places in Houston,' in your bid," he says).

The Olympics have long been an obsession for Kelley. A former Golden Gloves boxer who nursed hopes of making the 1952 Olympic team, he has attended the Summer Games in Helsinki, Mexico City, Munich and Atlanta.

"I've always loved wanting to go, to be a part of it," he says. "To be number one in the world in something -- you've got to be great and have talent, but you've got to be disciplined and work at it and have a little luck, and on that one day, for ten or 20 seconds, you can be the best in the world at what you do."

The Olympics will teach Houston kids about sportsmanship, fair play, and being mentally and physically fit, he says. And, of course, there's the benefit of being the world's stage. "The Olympics to me are not just about being able to say, 'We had the Games,' but what it can bring a city. When the name is announced in 2005 that we're the city for 2012, that's years of hearing Houston talked about in terms of cities all over the world."

Debates can go on for years, of course, as to whether hosting the Olympics is worth the effort. To Kelley, no discussion is necessary; the only question is how good a host Houston could be.

Not too shockingly, he comes down squarely on the somewhat under-populated side that says Houston would be a terrific host.

Smothering heat? Don't get him started. "Say what you want about the heat, but in Barcelona it was about the same. We just might be the only city in the world with two climate-controlled retractable-dome stadiums. We're the most air-conditioned city in the world. You'd spend 30 seconds getting from your house to your air-conditioned car, drive to where you're going, and then you'd be hot for two or three minutes while you walk to the stadium."

Kelley takes credit for getting international sports authorities to consider events held at retractable-dome facilities to be outdoor meets, and he says that movable domes will also end the type of rain delays that plagued Atlanta.

"I've been talking to the folks at network television, and you know how important that is. And I tell them everything will be done live, there'll be no rain delays," he says.

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