Chicago Wins By Losing

Why losing the Olympics is a blessing in disguise for the Windy City


Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he liked being president. Bedeviled by secession and war, he recalled a story about a man who, when tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail, commented that "if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk." Chicago didn't get the honor of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games, but it should be grateful.

Athletes who make the games face the challenge of outdoing talented peers from all over the world. Cities that host the games face the challenge of putting on a massive and highly visible two-week extravaganza without spending themselves into the poor house.

That's why plenty of locals had serious reservations about the whole thing. While the Chicago 2016 committee brandished a poll showing that 72 percent of locals supported the bid, a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll put the number at only 47 percent.

Here, as elsewhere, public opinion does not always matter. When the mayor and assorted corporations and interest groups line up behind something, even a grandiose vanity project, it's a good bet they will prevail over petty malcontents. Mayor Richard M. Daley is accustomed to getting his own way, even if it means calling out bulldozers in the middle of the night to wreck a city airport the federal government refused to let him close.

In this case, the big boys did prevail, rolling over local objections to be among the four finalists in Copenhagen. They just couldn't prevail over powerful interests in other countries. For Daley—who has been in office for two decades but whose popularity has eroded due to scandals and flights of arrogance—the shocking first-round eviction was a rare humbling moment, which might be good for him.

The outcome did not cast a flattering light on President Obama's decision to jet to Denmark to personally lobby the International Olympic Committee, which know-it-alls back home took as proof that everything was wired for his home city. Conservatives crowed that the defeat showed global disdain for a president who was supposed to win over the world. But it could just as well reflect residual distrust sown by his predecessor.

It did, however, confirm that Obama should have stayed home and focused on issues that have something to do with his job, instead of inviting a small group of foreigners to hand him his hindquarters on a platter.

But for Chicago, the rejection is a blessing in disguise. Winning the bid makes for a nice celebration, like the one on Copacabana beach Friday. But the pleasure of that pales next to the hangover that follows the actual event.

Getting the games means a city sacrifices considerable control over its financial future. If your vacation turns out to be more expensive than you planned, you can always cut it short and go home. But if the Olympics run over budget, you don't have the option of bailing out. You spend what you have to spend, whether you have the funds or not.

Olympics do run over budget, as a rule. Montreal, which hosted the 1976 summer games, just paid off the last bills in 2006. Athens, the 2004 site, spent three times as much as it had planned.

The 2012 summer games are still three years away and yet London's obligation has already quadrupled, to $15 billion. The former head of the agency set up to handle construction for the London Olympics says that before they are done, the cost may reach $40 billion. That's as much as was spent in Beijing, whose Communist form of government allowed it to dispense with fiscal sanity.

The residents of Chicago and the surrounding area no longer face the prospect of being hostages to fortune. They don't have to order city plans around an event that would be over in a flash. They don't have to endure the congestion and inconveniences that the games bring. Most important, they don't have to fear that they and their children will have to bear a lot of unforeseen costs.

It's no fun to get jilted in front of the world. But the only thing worse than losing an Olympics bid is winning one.