If Chicago had won the Olympics … – Chicago Tribune
Rio de Janeiro just marked one year until the 2016 Summer Olympic Games open there. Rio beat out some, um, excellent cities six years ago in the competition to host the Games.
We supported Chicago’s failed bid. But with each passing year it becomes clearer that Chicago dodged a bullet.
Rio’s bid in 2009 came with an estimated cost of $14.4 billion, which was far more realistic than the $4.8 billion bid made by Chicago. What would it really have cost Chicago? It sure would not have been $4.8 billion.
London initially penciled in $4 billion for the 2012 Games, but spent $14 billion. Beijing spent an estimated $40 billion for the summer 2008 Games. Russia spent an estimated $50 billion for the Winter 2014 Games in Sochi.
Rio’s preparations for 2016 have bordered on chaos. A subway extension may not be ready in time. Distance swimmers and boaters are scheduled to compete in waters that are contaminated with human waste. Olympic construction contractors are embroiled in an enormous corruption scandal. Brazil’s booming economy, once a clear selling point for Rio’s bid, is mired in what looks like a serious recession.
Boston recently dropped out of the running to host the 2024 Summer Games because the public didn’t support the bid and the mayor wouldn’t guarantee that the city would cover any financial shortfall.
That was an issue in Chicago. Then-Mayor Richard Daley signed a guarantee and struck a novel deal with insurers that supposedly would have shielded taxpayers from an unexpected bill. Would that insurance protection have held up if the costs soared? Perhaps Chicago would have introduced a new Olympic sport — synchronized litigation.
The Olympic movement is pricing itself into real trouble. Fewer potential host cities and countries are willing to commit billions of dollars to win what has become an exercise in nation-building on a deadline.
The International Olympic Committee met in late July to select a host for the 2022 Winter Games. Several European cities, including Munich, Stockholm and Oslo, dropped out. That gave the IOC an underwhelming choice of Beijing, which is bone dry in winter, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, capital of a former Soviet republic. Both are authoritarian states.
Beijing narrowly won. Outdoor events will be held about 100 miles away from the city on hills covered with artificial snow. Marketers like the idea of promoting winter sports to the Chinese. Olympic skiers will pine for Innsbruck.
Unless another U.S. city quickly steps up to replace Boston as a bidder and wins, the U.S., the largest television market for the Olympics, will not host until at least the 2026 Winter Games. That would mean a gap of 24 years from the last U.S.-staged Games in Salt Lake City in 2002. Those Winter Games were marred by a bidding scandal in which Olympic delegates choosing a site received payoffs.
Has the Olympics been missed enough for an American city to take the financial plunge again? No.
The arguments in favor of hosting the Games — the immediate and long-term economic benefits, the international branding for the city, the national pride — don’t stand up as well to scrutiny as they once did. Research by Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, shows that Olympic tourists displace other tourists and anticipated increases in trade and investment don’t materialize, while the branding benefits and feel-good effects for citizens are ephemeral.
“I think there’s an underlying economic crisis,” said Zimbalist, author of “Circus Maximus,” a book on the Olympic financial sinkhole.
The solution is likely to require that the Olympics select an anchor host, or a small number of rotating hosts, for the Games. That is, cities that have the infrastructure in place for sporting events. The Games would be as great, and wouldn’t afflict the hosts with the morning-after financial pain.
No doubt Chicago would have a different vibe today, building a stadium and Olympic village and other venues, anticipating next summer, had it won the 2016 Games. But you have to wonder how much of a financial burden it would have been for a city that’s already grappling with how to keep its schools and municipal government from financial collapse.
We’ll watch the Rio Games with interest. And try not to gag when the swimmers hit the water.
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