In a more perfect democracy, the campaign to host the 2016 Olympic Games
would have been the subject of intense public scrutiny from the moment
Mayor Daley proposed it three years ago.
The financial projections would've been scrutinized by
independent-minded aldermen and their whiz-kid staffers. There would've
been public hearings where ordinary citizens would get to question
Daley's Olympics planners. There might even have been a referendum,
carefully worded to let people know exactly what they were getting
into-something along the lines of "This could cost us all a ton of
money. Do you still want it?"
But what Chicago has is not an ideal democracy. So here
we are three years later, heatedly pursuing Mayor Daley's Olympics
dream whether we want to or not.
Recently, though, the Chicago 2016 planners have been
holding forums across the city. The mayor had no choice: in June he
promised International Olympic Committee officials he'd sign the standard host city contract,
which will make Chicago taxpayers the guarantors of any cost overruns-a
figure that could run into the billions of dollars. The fallout was
immediate. Aldermen, already under siege after the parking meter lease debacle, demanded an opportunity to examine and vote on the fine details of any funding package.
So to pacify the aldermen and show the IOC that
Chicagoans truly want the games-despite whatever IOC commissioners
might be reading in the papers-Daley announced a series of community
meetings in which the planners would bring the case for the games
directly to the people.
I had to wonder: What assurance could they possibly
offer that public dollars won't be spent that the public hasn't already
heard for years?
The short answer: none.
That said, the two hearings I sat through were fairly
impressive dog and pony shows. Cheery, well-dressed young volunteers
were on hand to pass out flyers, maps, rubber wristbands, and other
doodads. And to answer questions, Daley sent in the A team: Patrick
Ryan, CEO of the Chicago 2016 Committee; Lori Healey, president of the
committee; Doug Arnot, director of venues and games operations; and
Kurt Summers, Healey's chief of staff.
They didn't merely show up and screen their promotional videos, featuring inspirational testimonials from local athletes and a pitch from President Obama.
They tailored each presentation to its audience. For instance, there
was a white moderator, Chicago 2016 spokesman Patrick Sandusky, at the
July 13 meeting at North Park University on the northwest side. The
meeting two days later at the South Shore Cultural Center on the south
side was moderated by Chicago 2016's director of neighborhood legacy,
Arnold Randall, who's black.
Two Olympians-both white-showed up on the northwest
side to wave at the crowd. Ryan introduced them, but they sat in the
On the south side, three black Olympians sat facing the
audience alongside Ryan, Healey, and other officials. Sprinter Connie
Moore-who grew up in South Shore and was a member of the 2004 American
team-gave a brief speech. Randall encouraged the crowd to ask the
Olympians questions about their Olympics experiences, as though their
personal tales had some relevance to the pressing financial and
planning matters at hand.
On the north side, Ryan and Healey by and large
addressed the issue of cost as if they were speaking to a group of
concerned taxpayers. As Ryan explained it, the games would pay for
themselves and more: they would cost $3.3 billion to stage and bring in
$3.8 billion in revenues. That $500 million balance would fund "legacy"
programs in needy neighborhoods for decades to come.
On the south side, Ryan and Healey repeated those
projections, but they and others largely emphasized the jobs and
opportunities the games would create. People who want jobs in these
bleak economic times better jump on the Olympics bandwagon, they said,
because it could be the only game in town. They urged the audience to
visit the Chicago 2016 Web site to learn how to apply for jobs and
There were even different Obama videos for each crowd.
The one on the north side showed him looking presidential, sitting
before the flag in the White House and speaking directly to the IOC. On
the south side, Obama was seen offering a rousing campaign speech last
summer in Daley Plaza. "In 2016 I'll wrap up my second term as
president," he said. "I can't think of a better way than to be walking
into Washington Park alongside Mayor Daley and announcing to the world,
'Let the games begin.'"
But despite these heroic efforts, neither audience was buying what the Olympic planners were selling.
"Let's have a referendum," a man in the North Park audience blurted out." "Please, let's be respectful," said Ryan. "Let's hold a referendum," the man persisted.
When Ryan assured the North Park audience that the
Olympics venues could all be reached by bus so there'd be no need to
create extra parking, another guy cracked, "There's not enough quarters
in the country to pay the meters."
The session culminated with a question from a woman
near the back: "What are your policies to guard against corruption?"
Ryan responded that Chicago 2016 is governed by "a group of very
Opposition at the South Shore Cultural Center was even
stronger. For every person in the crowd who spoke up in favor of the
games, at least eight others spoke against them. They demanded jobs
now-not in seven years. They correctly pointed out that the "community
benefits" agreement is not legally binding but merely sets out a series
of goals for the creation of affordable housing and jobs for minorities
and women. They accused officials of condescending to them-"Barack
Obama, Oprah, and Michael Jordan don't speak for me," one woman said.
They scoffed at promises to use the games to improve recreational
programs in the inner city ("Do it now," one man demanded), and they
mocked the cheery financial projections.
"You're all projecting you're going to make a lot of
money," declared one woman. "Bankers projected making a lot of money,
Madoff projected he was going to make a lot of money. If your plan
fails, where will the money come from? Will it come from hospitals,
schools, parks-or are they going to issue a lot more of those red light
So now what? Any way you look at it, supporting the
games requires a leap of faith. You either believe the optimistic
projections of Daley, Ryan, Healey, Randall, and all the other
cheerleaders, or you tell yourself that the Olympics will be so good
for Chicago you don't care how much they cost.
Once these community hearings end in mid-August, the
public will pretty much have had its say. The sneers and jeers may
embolden a handful of aldermen to oppose the mayor when the council
eventually votes on the full-funding commitment, but the council will
probably approve it anyway. And with that the action will shift to a
new audience-the IOC. This eclectic group of 100-some Olympic
insiders-many of them former Olympians-will meet in Copenhagen on
October 2 to make a final decision."
At the moment Chicago's bid seems to be in trouble. The latest ranking from Gamesbid.com, which surveys the horse race, has Chicago dead last in the four-city competition, behind Tokyo, Rio, and Madrid.
Chicago's planners are clearly hoping for a big boost
from Obama. Four years ago, Paris was the favorite to win the 2012
games. But in the end, the IOC voted 54 to 50 for London, thanks to a
last-minute pitch from Prime Minister Tony Blair.
If Obama successfully pulls a Blair and uses his
considerable charm and charisma to woo over the IOC, it won't matter
whether the larger Chicago public is for, against, or ambivalent about
the games. But then that's been true all along.
Ben Joravsky discusses his column weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at http://mrradio.org/theworks