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?”
And if the answer were yes, we’d have moved on to try to win the International Olympic Committee’s approval.
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 audience.
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 contracts.
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 responsible people.”
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 tickets?”
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 Gamesbids.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 mrradio.org/theworks.