Numberscruncher: The Olympics
The site of the 2016 Olympics will be announced on Friday, and Chicago is considered to be a close contender along with Rio de Janeiro. Speaking on behalf of my three million fellow citizens, I’d say that Chicagoans are torn. The Olympics would be fun, and Chicagoans would love for the world to realize that we have indoor plumbing here, something that folks on America’s coasts don’t seem to know. But despite the inferiority complex, Chicagoans don’t have the puppy-like need to be loved that Atlanta or Salt Lake City seem to have. If you think our only claim to fame is Da Bears, then you are the idiot.
The problem is that Chicagoans are keenly aware of the costs of corruption. We have one former governor in prison and another who is likely to join him soon. We have a federal prosecutor issuing subpoenas and indictments left and right. Students have been admitted and received scholarships to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign based on who they knew; a current grand jury investigation is looking into clout admissions at the city’s elite public high schools. Who knows how many businesses have put off expanding or relocating to Illinois because of the tax from the take? Graft has been accepted here because politicians used to be careful to deliver goodies to the neighborhoods, but that’s not happening. Consider that two city high school students were murdered this past weekend. One, who attended a magnet school, was shot by an unknown assailant; the other, who attended a regular neighborhood high school, was beaten to death after school by a mob of his fellow classmates.
But sadly, the legacy of corruption makes Chicago a good fit for the International Olympic Committee, which has its own history of taking theirs. The IOC does things the same way Chicago politicians do; Mike Royko used to say that the definition of an honest politician in Chicago is that when he is bought, he stays bought. Many people in town assume that the fix is already in.
The problem with the IOC is that it seems to have no interest in whether the Olympic Games are good for the host city. That’s why visitors to Montreal or Seoul can marvel at the remains. One of the requirements is that the host city have a stadium that seat at least 80,000 people. Soldier Field seats 61,500, and that’s not good enough. I’m not sure that U2 could fill a 80,000 seat stadium. The facilities for other sports have to be able to accommodate big crowds, too. Northwestern University, in the suburb of Evanston, has what may be the largest field hockey stadium in the country, seating a whopping 300 people. That’s hardly Olympic size. Dedicated facilities will have to built to handle large crowds for small sports, and then what? City kids want swimming pools, but they will get velodromes instead.
The deal killer, though, is this: host cities have to agree to pay whatever it costs. They can’t scale back any of the plans if they discover that the sponsors aren’t willing to cough up the deal. In essence, cities have to give the IOC a blank check. Why? So that Coca-Cola has a suitably exciting venue to promote its flavored sugar water to the world.
Chicago’s history with making no little plans is mixed. Our fancy Millennium Park had massive cost overruns. How much, no one in Chicago is sure, because expenses were buried in other parts of the city budget. And, strangely enough, fees for Park District teams and facilities use went up at the same time. It didn’t help that the city cut a generous contract for the concessions at Millennium Park with a bidder who just happened to be the father of the child of one of the people who evaluated bids for the Park District, an incident of corruption only slightly less surreal than selling a senate seat to the highest bidder.
We have a third reason for being scared. The American political system pushes incredible authority down to the local level. That’s mostly good, because it brings decisionmaking down to where the people are. In very few other places on earth could a city mayor, even the mayor of a city of three million people, enter into a multi-billion dollar contract on his own. The other finalists in the 2016 site race have financial backing from their national governments. Chicago is on its own, without even financial support from the State of Illinois (which is justified, because Illinois is broke.) If the Olympics have massive cost overruns, which it almost certainly will, the people of Chicago will end up paying for it.
I’m an Olympics junkie. Every two years, I plant myself in front of the TV and follow the events, and not just the girly ones like figure skating and gymnastics. I love the pageantry and the excitement. Until the International Olympic Committee is willing to do something good for the host cities like, say, let them stick to a budget, I’d prefer that the Olympics stay out of my back yard.