Chicago Would Be Even More of a Disaster if It Had Been Awarded the 2016 Olympics

The city is still paying the tab for the bid-but it could have been much worse.


Back in October 2009 there were plenty of reasons to think the Olympic torch would be lit in Chicago this summer. Instead, on Friday night, the flame will be lit in Rio de Janerio.

Chicago, and the rest of America, should breath a sigh of relief.

Chicago's bid for the 2016 seemingly had everything. It had money, as the city promised to spend $4.8 billion for the Olympics, with a good chunk of that total going to build or upgrade sporting venues.

It had timing, as it would have been the first American city to host the Summer Games since Atlanta in 1996 and the first Olympics of any kind since Salt Lake City hosted the winter version in 2002 (since World War Two ended, America had never gone more than 20 years without hosting the Olympics).

It had star power, as three of the city's most famous residents—President Barack Obama, basketball star Michael Jordan and talk show host turned business mogul Oprah Winfrey—lent their vocal support to the effort. Obama even traveled to Copenhagen, where the final vote took place, to lobby for his adopted hometown.

Up against Madrid, Rio, and Toyko in the final round of bidding, Chicago appeared to be a strong contender, if not the favorite.

Then, stunningly, Chicago was ousted in the first round of voting, getting just 18 of the 94 votes and finishing dead last in the four city field. Not even good enough for the bronze medal.

"This was the most frustrating defeat in Chicago's recent sports history," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh, at the time.

This week, Haugh admits he was wrong about that assessment. That frustrating defeat was actually "the day the IOC saved Chicago from itself," he says.

"As bad as things seem in a city already fighting violence and the financial collapse of its government and school system, consider how much worse things would be if officials were distracted by hosting an international event as gargantuan as the Games," Haugh writes. "The Olympics likely would have added to the disrepair more than made it easier to fix."

More cities should learn from Chicago's experience. In fact, it seems like some are.

When city officials in Boston and the heads of the American Olympic Committee backed a bid for the Massachusetts capital to host the 2024 Olympics, it faced popular opposition unseen since residents of Denver voted to kill the city's winning bid to host the 1976 Winter Games. Boston's plan for the Olympics would have cost taxpayers a mere $2.7 billion, though independent analyses suggested the price tag would be north of $15 billion and maybe as much as $28 billion

Facing growing public opposition, Boston cancelled its bid last year.

Other cities haven't learned yet. Los Angeles quickly swept in to replace Boston as the U.S. bidder for the 2024 games, where it is now seen as a favorite in a four-way contest that includes Budapest, Paris and Rome.

Los Angeles does have one thing going for it. Of the 17 Summer Olympics held since the end of the Second World War, only the 1984 event in Los Angeles turned a profit, The Economist reported this week, citing research by David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.

One could argue that the Olympic Games aren't really meant to turn a profit, so that might be a flawed standard for measuring their success. But the Games have become staggering economic disasters for recent hosts. The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens cost the Greek government $16 billion. As with Chicago's lost bid, hindsight makes it clear that Greece never should have hosted the Olympics, history and tradition be damned.

Athens can take some small comfort in knowing that it's hardly alone. Jim Pagels has a rundown of the ignominious fates that befell Olympic host cities—and the lavish stadiums built for the Games—in the most recent edition of Reason.

You don't even need to wait a decade to reassess the wisdom of Rio de Janerio's bid for the Games. The city planned to spend $18 billion for the Olympics, but already needed an $850 million federal bailout just to get everything ready in time. There are concerns about rising crime, unfinished facilities, unclean water and Zika. Brazil's president has been impeached after allegedly manipulating the country's budget to hide bad news (don't forget: Brazil spent an estimated $13 billion to host the World Cup just two years ago).

Still, if Rio survives the next two weeks without a major security incident and without too many athletes getting sick from the fetid water, we'll be told the Games were a success. But if Rio hadn't staged the Olympics, those $18 billion could have been used to improve the lives of the people who live there, rather than paying for the world's most expensive sporting event.

Even without winning its bid, Chicago is still paying for the 2016 Olympics. Chicago's ABC affiliate reported this week that the city has paid $91 million over the past 10 years for the site of a former hospital which was bought as part of the bidding process and was supposed to serve as the athletes' living quarters.

The city will be paying off that purchase until 2024.

"I hope we can learn from these mega-projects and, regardless of what happens to the Olympic movement, stop throwing money into all these concrete-driven mega projects that rob the poor and give money to the rich," Tom Tresser, organizer of "No Games Chicago," told ABC-7.

That's unlikely, though skepticism about hosting the Olympics is growing.

Still, in Chicago's case, it could have been much worse.