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How Philadelphia Is Keeping Its Olympic Hopes Alive

When most Philadelphians think sports, we think high-profile professional and collegiate games: baseball, football, hockey, basketball (well, maybe not so much this season).

But Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, also thinks table tennis, rugby, squash, gymnastics -- even curling, that obscure sport involving brooms and an ice rink -- all in pursuit of putting Philadelphia on the international sporting map. The ultimate payoff, someday, maybe, would be to bring the Olympic Games here.

Philadelphia mounted a serious effort in 2008 to land the 2016 games  (which are going to Rio), and was one of five finalist U.S. cities -- a major coup. The feedback, says Needle, was that "Philadelphia is very viable as an Olympic city based on its facilities, infrastructure and the compact footprint for such a major city. The fact that we're on the East Coast was a big plus for TV coverage globally."

But Philadelphia was unfamiliar to the International Olympics Committee (IOC). It wasn't that the IOC had a negative perception of the city; instead, says Needle, "it was an unknown in those circles of people making decisions about major sporting events."

So, for the last three years, the Sports Congress has worked to raise Philadelphia's international profile, to build relationships sport-by-sport and host unusual events. Olympic trials for table tennis and gymnastics, international soccer, the U.S. Open Squash Championships and the recent Rugby League World Cup in Camden have all drawn good crowds.  Next year, Philadelphia will host the USA Curling National Championships and several large lacrosse events are upcoming.

Now one of the biggest opportunities yet for Philadelphia to promote itself as an international sporting location comes when the city hosts the International Fencing Federation from December 2-4.  Two hundred delegates from 100 countries -- the global fencing leadership -- will converge on the Four Seasons Hotel. Larry Probst, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), will attend and several members of the IOC are also expected.

There will be a huge welcome event at the Franklin Institute, co-hosted by Comcast (a valuable partner with its ownership of NBC, the Olympics network)  and a gala at the Constitution Center including an exhibition match. Although the days will be filled with meetings, not competitions, the Fencing Federation's presence here might ultimately be more important to Philadelphia than a public sporting event, says Needle.

"The international sporting universe is very interconnected," he says, "so if they come and have a great experience and go home and talk about Philadelphia, that's a home run for us."  As the only international sports federation meeting in the U.S. this year, he adds, the event is also vitally important to the USOC to raise the profile of the nation as host to a future Olympics.

The USOC has said it will not bid for the 2020 games, so the next possible opportunity to bring the Olympics to Philadelphia would be 2024. It sounds like the far distant future, but if there were to be a U.S. bid, the host city would be chosen in 2015.

For now, though, says Needle, there are no official plans to make a bid. "Our job for the meanwhile," he says, "is to bring new events here, to put Philadelphia in the best possible light and to introduce Philadelphia to decision makers nationally and internationally."

ELISE VIDER is a writer, editor, observer and advocate for economic development and design excellence in Philadelphia, her adopted hometown. Send feedback here.

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