The Games Game
Houston and Dallas go for the gold.
Fort Worth and Austin say “Uncle”—Miltie, that is. Plus: The art of rock and roll in Austin; college athletes in the swim in Dallas; an operatic debut in Dallas with a familiar Ring; and a post-war jazz master plays San Antonio.
I HAVE ALWAYS BELIEVED THAT THE IMAGES OF both Dallas and Houston were based on the social life of the cities rather than their political life. Dallas is supposed to be strict, exclusive, even repressed, while Houston is supposed to be more open but also rougher, less refined, more brawling and individualistic. Those clichés, while exaggerated, aren’t entirely wrong, as anyone who has attended a major social event in either city will testify. But politically, Dallas is the more disjointed city while Houston, although moving in a wild, freestyle dance, always seems to be moving in the same direction. It’s true that more than sixty years ago Dallas, in a moment of rare civic unity, managed to snatch the state fair from other Texas cities, and recently it has built a rapid transit system. Otherwise it’s been all Houston. The Ship Channel, the Astrodome, the medical center, the Johnson Space Center, and the new sports stadiums in progress were all the product of a unified civic will that Dallas hasn’t been able to harness since 1936. Even Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys play, and the Ballpark in Arlington, where the Rangers play, are in suburbs, not the city itself.
Now both Houston and Dallas are making bids to host the Olympic Games in 2012, and they both have a respectable chance to win. Of course everyone assumes that the rivalry between Houston and Dallas is on the brink of bursting open again. If that happens, the feud will be revved up to an intensity we haven’t seen before because for once it will be clear who wins and who loses. And the stakes are high. The Games in Atlanta created a huge bonanza of jobs and new or improved facilities. But for the moment, with the final decision still six years away, both sides are competing only to see which one can be the more magnanimous. In Houston everyone concerned stresses how much they want to bring the Olympics to Texas. And Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, as savvy and charismatic a politician as there is in Texas today, told me, “Houston and Dallas are both way beyond fighting over who is the big dog on the block here in Texas.” Perhaps he’s right, but we’ll see how magnanimous everyone remains when the time for the decision is close at hand.
The next Olympic Games, in 2000, will be in Sydney, Australia. The 2004 Games will be in Athens, Greece. The site for the 2008 Games has not been selected, but the presumption is that it will be somewhere in Asia. Expert opinion is that there is a better than 50 percent chance that the Games will return to the United States in 2012. In the fall of 2002 the United States Olympic Committee will choose which American city may bid for the Games. The International Olympic Committee will choose the site for 2012 among all the competing cities in the world in the fall of 2005. Seven other cities in the United States besides Dallas and Houston are competing for the 2012 Games: Baltimore—Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tampa. Each of these cities has its strengths but each has its weaknesses too—Los Angeles has already had the Games twice, and in some other cities the enthusiasm is low—so that Houston and Dallas have as good a chance as any and a better chance than most. Both cities have venues that could be made suitable for the Games. They both have the dormitory and hotel rooms for athletes and visitors, international transportation, strong corporate backing, and large population bases that can afford to buy tickets. The main negative reaction, particularly by people who live in Houston or Dallas, is to say, “Won’t it just be hot as hell?” Well, the Games can be held as early as May, when both cities are pleasant, and Houston will have domed stadiums that protect against heat as well as rain.
John Kelley, a former member of the city council, is the man who has dedicated himself to bringing the Olympics to Houston. Early in December he told me about the precise moment when he thought he first ignited Olympic fever in Houston. It was during a breakfast meeting in 1994. Kelley was still on the city council. He had been telling anyone who would listen that Houston should bid for the Olympic Games. Kelley’s impassioned words fell on deaf ears. He came to understand that people in Houston would never believe him about the Olympics—he can smile at the irony of it today—simply because he is from Houston too.
“So here’s what I did,” he said. “I had this breakfast with a lot of major people from here in town. I guess there were fifty or sixty there. And for speakers I invited two men who had worked with Peter Ueberroth in getting Los Angeles the Olympics in 1984. And I got up and said”—here he spoke slowly and distinctly, as if talking to a child—“‘Now, these people are from out of town. Out. Of. Town. So you people listen to them.’ So they explained what they did in Los Angeles and said Houston could do the same thing. And people believed them because they were from out of town.” He was able to raise more than $600,000 after that meeting, money he then used to enter Houston in the long process of wooing the Olympic Games.
John Kelley is a short, dapper man of 65 with a nice head of carefully combed gray hair and the flat nose of a boxer, which he once was. He went to the state Golden Gloves finals twice without winning the title. He had hoped to make the United States team for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, but an inopportune broken thumb destroyed his chance. He attended anyway, as a spectator, and saw Floyd Patterson win a gold medal. The Olympic torch has burned in his mind ever since. (Gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton is his daughter-in-law.) But now, when at last the mayor, the county judge, and the business establishment are all behind the Olympic bid, Kelley has had to let someone else be the leader. He is still the president of the Houston—Harris County Sports Committee Foundation, the organization responsible for pursuing the bid, but George A. DeMontrond III has been tapped by Mayor Brown as chairman. DeMontrond, whose family has been in Houston for generations, owns an automobile dealership the size of Luxembourg in far north Houston. He is 47, Princeton-educated, likable, quietly self-assured; in short, unlike Kelley, he is all sophistication and smooth edges. “I said some things about him at first that weren’t great,” Kelley told me. “They weren’t bad, but they weren’t great. But I’m old enough and a big enough boy to know that I can only carry things so far and then I need help with the load. We needed someone younger who has clout.” But isn’t it Dallas where there is supposed to be a ruling inner circle who mysteriously determines who is in and who is out?
If Dallas were ruled by an inner circle, it would never have picked a baby-faced, straight-arrow, non-athlete, not rich, not political, 32-year-old anonymous citizen from Arlington named Grady Hicks to initiate its Olympic bid. He is the vice president of marketing for a company that hauls liquid waste from grease traps, septic tanks, and portable toilets. He watched the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta obsessively and saw them in the most idealistic way: “I saw that for three and a half weeks people from all over the world could forget about poverty and war and . . . and hatred and all the rest and all come together and enjoy the Games. I knew I had to act on that. I just didn’t know how.”
Finally, in September 1997, he called the United States Olympic Committee and asked how cities bid for the Games, and the committee sent him the forms. The first deadline for an application was October 20 and required a $150,000 application fee. Working quickly, and nearly single-handedly, he persuaded the mayor and the city council of Arlington to submit the bid and managed to raise the money from private citizens who had no assurances that it would ever be returned.
Hicks had never really intended for Arlington to remain the lead city. He met with people throughout North Texas, but particularly in Dallas, which was embroiled in two important bond elections. No one in the political or business leadership wanted to distract the public’s attention by talking about the Olympics. But the bonds passed and Hicks’s Arlington 2012 Committee folded into the Dallas 2012 Committee with attorney and former gubernatorial candidate Tom Luce as chairman.
Early in December the Dallas Citizens Council invited Billy Payne, the man who brought the Olympics to Atlanta, to speak to a large group of political and business figures. (“Ha!” John Kelley cackled when I mentioned the event to him. “You see, he’s from out of town!”) Payne gave an evangelical speech. “In Atlanta and Dallas, we do really believe in ourselves,” he said. “And my reward was the millions of people who had a life-defining experience at those Olympic Games.” The meeting was a resounding success. Houston, meanwhile, has hired a knowledgeable and well-wired consultant to help it with its bid, and he too insists, though not with quite the same evangelical zeal, that a winning bid must rise not out of local boosterism but from the Olympic ideals of respect and fair play. It turns out that the International Olympic Committee takes its ideals seriously. Houston and Dallas will be competing about the nobility of their purpose, which will be a welcome change. These two eager, can-do towns are going to have to become eager, can-do, high-minded towns—to which one can only say, in all sincerity, go for it.