The Washington, D.C., bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics butted heads this summer with rival bids from three other cities: New York, Houston, and San Francisco. Competition among potential host cities is traditionally a cutthroat game, with organizers in each locale forever scrambling to outdo their counterparts.

Readers of the Washington Post had every reason to believe that their hometown was acing the Olympics sweepstakes.

On July 3, the Post reported that D.C. was “arguably” the No. 1 candidate.

On July 17, the Post reported that D.C. was in an “apparent” tie for first with San Francisco.

On Aug. 27, the Post reported that D.C. would “likely” qualify as one of two finalists to become the 2012 U.S. Olympic bid city.

Then, on Aug. 28, the Post reported that all of its predictions were wrong. In a Chicago meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee site team, D.C. and Houston had failed to make the cut. New York and San Francisco advanced to the final round of consideration.

The paper’s postmortem coverage documented the grief of D.C. civic leaders. District Mayor Anthony A. Williams was pictured with his head in his hands. “Bummer. Bummer. Bummer,” lamented the mayor. Dan Knise, president and CEO of the Washington-Baltimore bid, spoke to reporters with “reddened eyes,” according to Post reporter Amy Shipley, who handled the coverage.

The paper didn’t stop to mention one of the main reasons that the mayor and company were so stunned: The Post’s own errant predictions had raised District leaders’ expectations. Even Knise, who had held extensive consultations with U.S. Olympic Committee staff, conceded that the Post’s coverage had fueled his optimism “in part.”

“[Shipley] clearly had somebody who was talking to her. I don’t know how she did it,” says Knise. Adds Bobby Goldwater, president of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission: “I don’t know who she spoke to.”

No one does—that’s the trouble with anonymous sources. For her bold contention that D.C. and San Francisco headed up the list of bid cities, Shipley had relied on “a highly placed U.S. official who has been involved in the process.” That’s not necessarily one of the 10 voting site-team members. It’s not necessarily a decision maker. Nor is it two or three highly placed U.S. officials; it’s just one solitary highly placed U.S. official out there who hazarded a guess on who’d win the competition. For all we know, it’s a secretary in the committee’s executive offices. Or maybe Bruce Jenner.

“We had what we considered good sources, and at the time that she wrote it, we believed that everything we printed was true,” says Post sports editor George Solomon. Executive Editor Leonard Downie also vouches for Shipley’s sources. Perhaps we’ll just have to take their word for it.

One highly placed U.S. official who did put his name behind his statements was site-team Chair Charles H. Moore. In a July 17 press release, Moore attacked Shipley’s reporting, insisting there is “absolutely no credence to the statement that any city’s bid has moved ahead of others…” On the following day, the Post ran a brief piece on Moore’s objections. In an interview this week, Moore spoke dismissively of the “leading authority” quoted blindly in the Shipley story.

Moore says he issued other warnings to Shipley about hasty declarations. “I said, ‘Amy, you’re wasting your time, because there’s no story here. We haven’t even compared the cities yet,’” recalls Moore. Shipley did not respond to several calls for comment. Solomon, however, says that the Post brushed aside the sniping from Olympic officialdom. “We continued our reporting,” he says.

No self-respecting news organization backs down just because a big shot wags a finger. Where the Post erred, though, was in writing conclusive-sounding stories about an opaque and uncertain process. After the site team concluded its tour of the four cities, it slogged through an evaluation incorporating both objective and subjective data. Despite the Post’s enthusiastic appraisal of the District’s merits, initial scoring ended in a three-way dead heat, according to Shipley’s own autopsy report. Faced with the tie, team members downgraded D.C. because they believed the nation’s capital had an international image problem—a consideration that the Post had underplayed in handicapping the race. “Things changed,” says Solomon.

Things changed so much, in fact, that the Post was forced to publish two cover-your-ass stories explaining how the results defied the paper’s predictions. Even so, Solomon insists that he “would do everything the same” if he had another whack at the Olympic-bid story.

Yet there’s a bigger tale about the Post in its bid coverage, apart from being wrong and relying on blind sources. Shipley’s endless projections on the bid process shore up a veritable Post tradition: editorial overkill.

In the spirit of one of those classic Post investigative series and its two-week commemoration of Sept. 11, Shipley not only wrote ad nauseam about the Washington-Baltimore bid, she also penned two stories on each of the other three bid cities—a total of nearly 5,000 words on the Olympic machinations of New York, Houston, and San Francisco. Those dispatches dealt with three different sets of construction schedules, logistical arrangements, and municipal finances—an impenetrable pile of information. Outside of the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, it’s hard to imagine who cared.

And why should anyone have cared? This summer’s competition did not determine which city will host the Olympics in 2012. It determined which two cities will compete to become the U.S. finalist. One of those two cities, then, will enter the long, three-year international contest to become the actual Olympic host city—along with as many as 14 overseas cities. The District, in other words, was competing for the chance to compete for the chance to compete for the Olympics. In effect, the Post broadcast a four-hour pregame show for an exhibition game.

Other papers kept the semifinal U.S. round in perspective. The New York Times, for instance, wrote brief news stories on New York’s bid but spared readers a play-by-play analysis of the site team’s visits to other cities. The San Francisco Chronicle was similarly restrained.

When asked if the Post had overplayed the story, Solomon says, “We thought it was perfectly reasonable…and you had a choice not to read it.” —Erik Wemple