Burned by the Torch

Why Chicago is better off without the 2016 summer Olympics


Representatives of the International Olympic Committee arrived last week to get a first-hand look at Chicago, one of four cities still in the running for the 2016 summer games. If locals are lucky, the IOC team will admire our architecture, stroll our lakefront, enjoy our restaurants, praise our plans—and then give the games to someone else.

I can see how it might be fun to hold the Olympics here, just as it would have been a treat to attend the wedding of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen. But getting picked to put on the games is like being asked to let B&B take their vows in your backyard and throw a huge bash for them afterward. It's a nice deal for the betrothed, but not so great for the host, who would probably be cleaning up the debris and paying the bills for some time to come.

If you like vanity projects, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger or better one than the Olympics—a two-week extravaganza featuring thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators, plus a worldwide TV audience.

But what does Chicago really stand to gain from it? It's not like we were unknown, even before a Chicagoan went to the White House. And it's hard to believe all the publicity has a long-term payoff. How many people do you know who were inspired to visit Calgary after the 1988 winter games?

Boosters promise gains in the form of infrastructure improvements and a boom in tourism. But Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross, has found that the glow of staging major sporting events like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or the Olympics "tends not to translate into any measurable benefits to the host city."

Many residents would get to see Olympic events in person, something they would never do otherwise, which is worth something. But for most of the rest of the people in the region, it will be a major hassle, a minor hassle, or an irrelevance.

It will most likely also be an expense. The people running the Chicago 2016 committee say taxpayers won't be out one thin dime for the privilege, and Mayor Daley echoes that promise. But to back up the bid, the city had to promise to cover any operating deficit up to $500 million.

Chances are good it will have to make good on that promise. The festivities have a maddening habit of costing more than the prime movers say they will.

The 2004 summer games in Athens cost $1.7 billion, largely because of heightened security demands after 9/11. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police says the budget for security at next year's winter games in Vancouver is likewise insufficient. Sponsors had planned to spend just $175 million, even though protecting the last winter games in Salt Lake City cost $300 million.

The total price of the 2012 games has tripled since London won the bid. "London is shaping up in many ways to be a financial catastrophe," sports economist Stefan Szymanski of City University London recently told Tribune correspondent Laurie Goering, pointing out the dismal fact: "You only get the Olympics by paying more than they're worth."

Patrick Ryan, head of Chicago 2016, brags that the Olympics have strong support among Chicagoans. That's true. What doesn't have strong support is paying for them. Asked in a poll if they favored using tax dollars to help cover the cost, 75 percent of Chicago-area respondents said no.

What those people may not have considered is that even if they don't pay for the privilege through higher taxes, they will pay in other ways. Has anyone considered how pleasurable it will be—and how prolonged the pleasure—to drive from the South Side to the North Side during that fortnight? Or do anything that is not related to the games? Has anyone considered all the institutions that will suffer because donations and entertainment outlays will be diverted from them to the Olympics?

Olympic skeptics are admonished for such petty concerns by supporters who brandish the words of Chicago's visionary urban planner Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans." But the Olympics may prove that a big plan is not the same as a good plan.