Chicago is pulling out all of the stops in Denmark this week in trying to land the 2016 Summer Olympics for the Windy City. Oprah will be in Copenhagen trying to woo the International Olympic Committee, as will the governor, the mayor and the nation’s transportation secretary, who happens to be from Peoria. Even President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will be in town. They’ll find out on Friday how successful they were in their competition against Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. We view this bid with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Chicago is pulling out all of the stops in Denmark this week in trying to land the 2016 Summer Olympics for the Windy City. Oprah will be in Copenhagen trying to woo the International Olympic Committee, as will the governor, the mayor and the nation’s transportation secretary, who happens to be from Peoria. Even President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will be in town.
They’ll find out on Friday how successful they were in their competition against Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.
We view this bid with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
On the one hand, Chicago is a truly global city by almost any measure, yet it is often overshadowed by others and has never hosted an Olympics. If any of the finalists has earned the chance to strut its stuff, to show off its beauty and sheer magnificence to planet Earth, it is Chicago. We have little doubt that the world’s eyes would be opened to its fantastic lakefront, its architecturally formidable skyline, its gold-medal restaurants and cultural amenities, in much the same way they were at the 1893 World’s Fair. That can pay off in a variety of ways, and often quite literally through enhanced tourism, jobs, etc.
But then there is the other side of Chicago — the prohibitively expensive side, the corrupt side, the say-one-thing-and-do-another side.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has said repeatedly that no public money will go into the projected $4.8 billion cost of the Olympics, which interestingly is the lowest estimated price tag among the four cities (and a little more than one-tenth of what Beijing spent). We find that difficult to believe, as clearly many of the private ventures here — the $1.2 billion Olympic Village near McCormick Place, for one — will be incentivized with public subsidies.
The question for us has always been how much downstaters might be be asked to contribute, through their state government, and what the return on that investment might be. Alas, Daley has promised that he will not be coming hat in hand. He should be held to that.
Certainly, Daley & Co. have gone to great pains to ease the concerns of his locals and others around Illinois by insuring the Games to the tune of $1.2 billion. He says that taxpayers will be protected against just about every conceivable catastrophe, from tornado to terrorism to cancellation. We’re not sure it’s possible to think of everything that can go wrong, or to find an insurance company that will help you hedge against it. Nonetheless, it does provide some peace of mind.
No community gets away with an Olympics anymore without some taxpayer support — federal, state or local — though Atlanta probably did as well as anybody, hosting the Summer Games in 1996 by generating $1.7 billion in private investment, while ending them free of debt. Certainly those Games helped put Atlanta on the map.
On the other hand, taxpayers in Vancouver, Canada (Winter Games, 2010) and London (Summer, 2012) have already had to bail out bloated construction budgets for Olympic villages and other facilities in advance of their competitions. If Chicago gets the bid, will it end up being Barcelona (1992), where the Olympics sparked an impressive urban renewal and prosperity that continues to this day, or Athens, which practically emptied the bank with huge cost overruns for facilities that largely sit empty and graffiti-covered now? There are lessons to be learned from both.
Millennium Park is worth bragging about, but if Chicago’s experience with it is any indication, it does not inspire confidence that this Olympic effort can be brought in at or under budget. If corporate sponsorships (from which Chicago is anticipating a record $1.8 billion) don’t come in as expected, if advance ticket sales don’t produce, who pays the difference? Perhaps Uncle Sam, if President Obama’s letter to the IOC recently is any indication. He wrote that “you can count on our government to support Chicago’s quest.”
Meanwhile, will Chicago’s public transportation system be up to the challenge? How much will security cost in this age of terrorism? If past is prologue, how much money will vanish into the pockets of contractors, politicians and their pals? Even Salt Lake City, of all places, couldn’t resist some of those temptations in 2002. This is Illinois, after all, and Chicago at that.
Finally, a recent Tribune/WGN poll showed only 47 percent of Chicagoans support the bid, while expressing some of the same concerns listed above. The city’s own League of Women Voters is opposed. Many charities fear its fund-raising will cut into theirs. If there’s that much doubt among Chicagoans themselves, how can downstaters be expected to get wholeheartedly behind it?
Unlike some, we don’t reject this Olympic bid out of hand. It is likely to be decided by just a couple of votes, and the last-minute politicking is no doubt intense. It represents an incredible opportunity, but it is not without risk. All in all, Chicago seems to have put together a competitive, compelling bid.
We just hope it’s grounded in reality. So good luck ... we guess.
Peoria Journal Star