Athletics

Burned by the Torch

Why Chicago is better off without the 2016 summer Olympics

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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.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. I hope they drive the IOC over some of the potholes on Wacker and they get scared and maybe start crying.

  2. 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?

    Chapman first minimizes the benefits of the Olympics, then says that even if no tax moneys are spent on them, Chicagoans should oppose them because of the potential for traffic jams for 14 days and the possibility that no one will visit the Adler Planetarium when they can go watch a speedwalking match.

    I'm pretty sympathetic to the argument that the Olympics will require massive subsidies from public funds, but this is just stupid.

  3. I should say, "the potential for worse than normal traffic jams", since driving on the Dan Ryan is no picnic even without any international sporting events in town.

  4. There is only one up-side to the Olympics in Chicago: The slim possibility that the Italian Beef sandwich will become more widely known and served.

  5. In a nutshell-

    Fuck the Olympics.

  6. The traffic thing is widely overrated. I lived in Atlanta when they got the games (but was gone by 1996). The traffic fear totally failed to appear - everyone left town or worked from home for those two weeks. It was probably the easiest commute in Atlanta for the last 25 years for those who still did it.

  7. robc,

    We're getting out of town for the Horse Olympics. We don't know where yet, but we've already blocked out the time off.

  8. I hope they drive the IOC over some of the potholes on Wacker and they get scared and maybe start crying.

    Hell, Wacker's nothing. Try driving in the right lane going Eastbound on North Avenue between Halstead and Ellston. It's BRUTAL! I thought I busted an axle the other day. That whole area is like a mine field.

    Chicagoans should oppose them because of the potential for traffic jams for 14

    As opposed to the free-flowing freeways we have now? What can we oppose to get rid of those? robc's comment about Atlanta applied to LA in 1984 as well. My dad said that the traffic for those two weeks was the best it had ever been. No problems at all.

    The slim possibility that the Italian Beef sandwich will become more widely known and served.

    I'd never heard of this until I moved to Champaign for law school. I can't believe that in a city like L.A. (where I grew up), there was almost no place you could get an Italian Beef. Although I thought I heard they opened a Portillo's in SoCal recently.

  9. Daley wants the Olympics like a crack whore wants a rock for one reason:

    The opportunities for graft presented by a multi-billion dollar public works project.

    Good for Chicago? Of course note. Good for the Daley machine? You bet your ass.

  10. Gyros in Greektown. Chicago style pizza!

  11. The whole plan they came up with is thrown together in a half ass manner. Chicago has nowhere decent to put the events. The city is even pushing around some hospital to get its land. I could go on and on but the upside is that at least the logos don't suck like London's.

  12. "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."

    That's the whole damned point. They want to host the games so they will have a cover for spending tons of money they don't have without accountability.

  13. I have heard that even the argument "many locals may get to see games" is not so true, things get sold out so fast and are sold online that locals don't even know before it's too late. I remember that's how it happened with the world cup as well.

    I used to want the Olympics here but at this point no way in hell. Of course we will have to pay, we are already subsidizing lavish lifestyles for Stroger's extended family, and about to christen a new dynasty of Madigans to rule over us in addition to the Daleys and Strogers, so really it's hard to figure out where all this money is going to come from. On the other hand it's nice to lead the simple life of a vassal of benevolend overlords.

  14. Nutrasweet I agree completely about the beef sandwich. If you ever go south you can get one at http://www.chicagoonabun.com/ I used to go to the Rennaisance one when I worked in Miserable Mesa.

  15. Anyone who has read "Devil in the White City" would also agree that the Olympics shouldn't go anywhere near Chicago.

  16. You can't really lump the Olympics in with the Super Bowl or the World Cup or other major sporting events when analyzing the long term impact, because the other events use existing facilities, while the Olympics typically requires major new construction.

    Of course cities always overpay for the privilege of hosting the Olympics, because they are a major publicity event and mark the city in the annals of history. It's not as if cities are bidding on them because they might turn a profit.

    Naturally I'm opposed to forcing people to pay for the Olympics through taxes, but if 25% of Chicagolanders are willing to, let them make voluntary contributions to the cause.

  17. Try driving in the right lane going Eastbound on North Avenue between Halstead and Ellston.

    Done, and agreed.

    Chicago style pizza!

    Of course, here we just call it "pizza".

  18. If they put light rail down grand I'm all for it. It will drive my condo value through the roof! Then I can move out of this horrific city.

  19. "Chicago style pizza!"

    Sucks.

  20. It's a moot point anyway. The 2016 games will go to Brazil.

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