Going the Distance

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.

Putting on the Olympic Games is a huge proposition for any city. Boosters here, such as they are, brag that Houston already has most of the facilities necessary for hosting the event. Throw in a (multimillion-dollar) aquatic center and some practice facilities, and the city is ready, willing and able to handle anything the Olympics might need, supporters say.

But beyond the obvious drawbacks (horrendous traffic, years of fawning, anticipatory local press coverage), hosting the Olympics would dominate thinking and planning in the city and county bureaucracy for years and years, essentially forcing any major proposed expenditure to prove that it somehow benefited the Olympic effort.

Mayor Lee Brown and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels have endorsed the effort to seek the Olympics, but there are indications that corporate Houston isn't overly enamored of the idea.

When supporters of the downtown baseball stadium looked to business leaders in 1997 to donate their time -- and up to $40 million or so in cash -- the eager recruits included such local giants as Enron, Shell, Southwestern Bell and Compaq Computers.

But when city officials named their "blue-ribbon" Olympic-bid committee in June, they proclaimed that the effort would be led by ... car salesman George DeMontrond. The committee also featured a couple of former gold medalists, Retton and Carl Lewis, and, as a Houston Chronicle story noted, "para-Olympic athlete Mario Rodriguez, investment banker Gilbert Herrera, HISD employee Rose Haggerty and Aldine ISD employee Patty O'Rourke."

The city of Houston had pledged $1.5 million over three years on the project, which private industry was expected to match. You'd have to listen hard to hear Washington/Baltimore shaking in its boots, not to mention such competitors as Seattle, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Tampa Bay/Orlando.

But none of that matters to John Kelley. He has been working for nine years on getting the Olympics here, and he's not about to let a little thing like local corporate apathy slow him down.

For one thing, he's sure the bigshots will come around when they sense they've got a winner to back. For another, he's got his own way of doing things. Slowly, methodically, he's working his dream from the bottom up.

That includes scrambling around to put on events such as the Pan American gymnastic event. Perhaps 20 countries in the hemisphere sent youth teams in July to compete. On a Monday morning of the first day of the event, the spinning, bouncing and vaulting athletes in the HISD's Coleman Community Coliseum outnumbered spectators.

Although girls from Guatemala, Ecuador and Venezuela wore their colorful national uniforms, and were doing the kind of things gymnasts do while the world watches every four years, the feeling in the empty gym was decidedly un-Olympian.

Kelley wasn't fazed, of course. Armed with a cell phone and a decidedly serious attitude, he was ready to leap into action as soon as some problem cropped up, like maybe a bad batch of oranges or a break in the Minute Maid negotiations.

And, just as characteristically, he was optimistic that things would get better. "These are just the preliminaries," he said. "You don't get much of a crowd, but we've sold a lot of tickets for this weekend."

More important than that, he said, were the long-term benefits of successfully holding the competition. Treat the participants royally, he says (a definition of "royally" that apparently includes dining at Luby's), and the coach of, say, the Paraguayan team will go home and rave about Houston.

And, of course, you trot out Mary Lou. Now the 30-year-old wife of Kelley's son Shannon (a former University of Texas quarterback), Retton has lost none of her perkiness. And Kelley has shown no hesitancy about using that semi-star-power as often as he can.

She wowed the young gymnasts at the gymnastics meet, naturally, posing happily for pictures and chatting easily with the athletes who crowded around her.

"Twenty countries here will be saying that Houston put on a good show, that they had good food, the hotel was fine, there was good bottled water and good transportation," he explained. "And that'll bode well with the voters. The coaches will go back, and they'll talk to their bosses on the athletic councils, and they'll talk to the voters."  

The voters. That's what's key for Kelley, who's working the Olympics as if he were a delegate hunter at a political convention with an undecided race.

One by one, it seems, he's putting the personal touch on every international athletic official he can.

"I'm personable, and I like to meet and to know people," he says. "These officials and coaches will come into town for an event or something, and I'll take them out to dinner, and we'll talk about the kids, and the family, and, you know, they'll usually ask something about Mary Lou [Retton]. They all want to know about the facilities we have here for their specific sport, but usually I let them bring it up, so they don't feel like it's a hard sell. Then I'll have had all the information ready and at my fingertips, and I'm able to show them all we have here."

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."

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.

He has other heat-battling plans. "I went to Phoenix and I noticed they had these misters at the golf course, fans that blow water, kind of like you see on the bench at football games," he says. "I talked to Jerry King at [Houston's] public works department, and we can be very innovative very cheaply. You get PVC pipe, string it for ten miles, hook it up to telephone poles and the water mains, and you can cool the marathon runners."

It may sound wild to some, but not to Kelley. "I'm a visionary. I like to think about the future," he says.

Even if his head is in the clouds -- imagining a Houston where visitors don't notice the heat, or a world where IOC voters don't look here and see a bigger, brasher version of Atlanta -- Kelley still maintains his nuts-and-bolts philosophy.

"It all boils down to -- it's like if you want to be mayor, you've got to have the votes," he says. "We could have a billion-dollar stadium, and if you don't have the votes, it won't mean a thing."

And so, like a frontline grunt, Kelley will leave the glamorous big-bucks stuff to the River Oaks crowd that he is so sure will eventually get on board when success seems more likely. Instead, he'll be wining and dining those low-level functionaries who might eventually influence the voters; he'll be working the phones trying to wrangle deals out of grocery stores and cafeterias (the world team weightlifting trials come to town August 29); and he'll be keeping tabs on other cities' foul-ups and successes.

Of course, he's confident. "It's really starting to roll," he says. And if he's right -- if things are starting to roll, if Houston has a good chance to be the lone U.S. nominee in the hunt, and eventually perhaps the winner -- then Houston residents will be faced with some expensive choices.

It may cost a billion dollars to put on the Games; authorities will say the investment will repay itself many times over. But if the improbable happens, for good or ill, the man largely responsible will be John Kelley, the obscure Olympic dreamer who will have spent years preparing the trenches for the big boys to launch their high-profile offensive.

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

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