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Star gazing: Chicago puts celebrities to work

COPENHAGEN - COPENHAGEN (AP) — Want a picture with Oprah? She's holding court in the restaurant. Interested in talking to a Dream Teamer or a Perfect 10? David Robinson and Nadia Comaneci are roaming the halls. How about a meeting with the first lady? If you're an International Olympic Committee member, it's a good bet Michelle Obama could work you in.

With the hours dwindling before the 2016 Games are awarded, Chicago leaders were doing another hard sell Thursday, trying to win over a few more voters and hold onto those who already like them.

"Everybody is thinking positively about their own city," said Anita De Frantz, one of the United States' two IOC members. "The question is, can anybody make a better case for a better city?"

Chicago may be considered the favorite going into Friday's IOC vote, but plenty of cities that were sure things have wound up watching someone else celebrate. Not to mention that Rio de Janeiro has a compelling argument, asking the IOC to take the games to South America for the first time while Madrid has the backing of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, still an influential figure. Tokyo has pushed the safety and financial security aspects of its proposal.

"There are four great choices," Robinson said. "Obviously, we're here to talk about the merits of Chicago."

The first lady spent a second day of one-on-one meetings with IOC members in a private suite at the official hotel, breaking only to attend the opening ceremony at Copenhagen's dazzling opera house. Wearing a sleeveless, apricot-colored dress, she greeted a steady stream of members and other VIPs.

Russian swimming great Alexander Popov, now an IOC member, spent several minutes chatting with her. After getting his picture taken with Mrs. Obama, he was ushered off to meet with talk show star Oprah Winfrey and Mayor Richard Daley.

The sit-downs and meet-and-greets may be brief, but they give the first lady an opportunity to share her story — she grew up on the city's South Side, near where most of the venues would be. She also assured IOC members of Chicago's sincerity to use the Olympics as inspiration for children who might not otherwise have reason to dream big.

"She really is amazing. Besides the significance of an African-American president and first lady, she's impressive at any level," said David Robinson, who admitted he was a little star struck after meeting Mrs. Obama on Wednesday afternoon. "With her education, with her dignity, the way she carries herself, she's tremendous."

While Chicago's "co-captain" (that's what Winfrey has nicknamed her) spent most of the day out of sight — she also had lunch with the Queen of Denmark — the other big stars were out for everyone to see.

As word spread that Winfrey would be arriving at the IOC hotel, the lobby filled. IOC members may rub shoulders with impressive folks every day, but even they were eager to catch a glimpse of Winfrey, who ranks second only to Angelina Jolie on Forbes' Celebrity 100 list.

Winfrey couldn't take more than a step or two without someone asking for a photo or to shake her hand, and she happily obliged. Making her way into the restaurant, she chatted up IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg and Sam Ramsamy, an IOC member from South Africa.

And, of course, posed for more pictures.

"Whoever's there, I'll talk to them," Winfrey said.

Ditto for that long lineup of Olympians and Paralympians who came to Copenhagen to show their support. While they spent most of the week at clinics for local school children, media events or hobnobbing with Chicago supporters, they were more than happy to schmooze with IOC members, too.

"There are so many people around. So really it's us trying to make ourselves available if they want to say hello," said Robinson, who spent several minutes Thursday talking with Ramsamy. "There are some cases where they may want to stop and take a picture, great. But they obviously have a lot of people to meet, a lot of things on their agenda."

While a handshake or a quick photo might not seem like much, the race is so close that even the tiniest thing could make the biggest difference.

Mike Conley, the 1992 gold medalist in the triple jump, struggled to contain his emotions when he talked about seeing the site of the planned Olympic stadium in the very park where he ran and rode his bike as a boy. Paralympian Linda Mastandrea cried as she described how her life changed when she discovered she could still compete in athletics, despite being in a wheelchair.

"Sports brings people together like nothing I have ever seen. There are no political barriers, no cultural barriers, nothing," Robinson said. "To be able to host something so pure, so sweet, would be a tremendous honor for us. We would be a tremendous partner, and I hope the world agrees."


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