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Chicago Thwarts the Bid

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Issue: 64 Section: International News Geography: USA Chicago Topics: sports, 2010 Olympics

January 20, 2010

Chicago Thwarts the Bid

How one American city dodged the Olympic bullet

by Dave Zirin

WASHINGTON, DC—"This is a devastating blow for the people of Chicago." So said ESPN's Chicago-born Michael Wilbon.

But the decision to send the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio was in fact a victory for the people of Chicago. Pushing back against immense pressure from Mayor Daley's political machine, organizations like No Games Chicago went grassroots, corner to corner, and spoke out against the Olympic storm of gentrification, tax hikes, and police misconduct. They are a model of resistance in the Obama era. Certainly one reason the United States got the high hat was the lingering bad taste of George W. Bush. The global community, after eight years of sneering contempt from Washington, DC, isn't ready to rinse with the Obama mouthwash.

Protests plagued Chicago's Olympic bid.

But it's the community activists of Chicago who should feel tremendously gratified. In the Windy City, the hastily formed group No Games Chicago took to the streets, shadowing Olympic organizers at every stop. They turned almost every public relations gambit into challenged, contested, space. They—along with the millions of Chicagoans who expressed their trepidation in polls—saved their city. They have every right to say with pride, "That's the Chicago way!"

As for Barack Obama, he may not be feeling it, but he is the luckiest man alive. Yes, he traveled all the way to Copenhagen and didn't even get a lousy t-shirt, but he is very fortunate his bid went down like it did.

Obama is the first US president to ever appear before the International Olympic Committee and plead for the Games. The Games coming to the Windy City would have been an eight-year distraction and political gold for his opponents. Every time an Olympic project came in late and over budget, every time a scandal hit the tabloids, every time a crime was captured on a cell phone camera it would have been "Obama's Olympic Folly."

The person who really has egg on his face is Mayor Richard Daley. He wanted to show everyone he was a bigger man—and mayor—than his Daddy, with an Olympic-sized stadia to boot. Now expect all the Daley arm-twisting and all the dirty skullduggery in the lead up to both come to light and come home to roost. Mayor Daley, rocking a 35 per cent approval rating, said that the Games would be "a huge boost to our economy, raising it to a new level. The Games will help us recover sooner from the recession that still grips our nation and enable us to better compete in the global economy."

There was only one problem with this argument: the history of the Olympic Games almost without exception brands it as a lie. As Sports Illustrated's Michael Fish—an Olympic supporter—has written, "You stage a two-week athletic carnival and, if things go well, pray the local municipality isn't sent into financial ruin."

In fact, the very idea that Chicago could have been an appropriate setting for the Olympics might have been hatched by Jon Stewart for a four-year supply of comedic fodder. To greater or lesser degrees, the Olympics bring gentrification, graft and police violence wherever they nest. Even without the Olympic Games, Chicago has been ground zero in the past decade for the destruction of public housing, political corruption raised to an art form, and police violence.

It was also difficult for Chicago residents to see how this would help their pocketbooks, given that Daley pledged to the International Olympic Committee that any cost overruns would be covered by taxpayers.

This is why a staggering 84 per cent of the city opposed bringing the Games to Chicago if it cost residents a solitary dime. Even if the Games were to go off without a hitch—which would happen only if the setting was lovely Shangri-La—not even half the residents would support hosting the Games.

The Obamas, former Chicago residents, should have stood with their city. Instead, we had the sight of Barack, Michelle, and Oprah trying to out-muscle Pele and Brazil for a place at the Olympic trough.

Michelle Obama said in her speech to the IOC, "My father was disabled, and I think what it would have meant for him to see someone in his shoes compete. Kids need to see that and that needs to be celebrated just as much, if not more."

This seems more like an argument to support the Paralympics (a tremendous event) but that's beside the point. Michelle Obama should have realized that if the Olympics had come to Chicago when she was a young girl on Chicago's working class southside, her home may have been torn down to make way for an Olympic facility. No word on how being out of house and home would have helped her disabled father.

The question is, why did Obama risk this humiliation?

Maybe Obama wants the Olympic fairy dust enjoyed by Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles or Bill Clinton at the 1996 games in Atlanta. Or perhaps he is returning favor to the developers and other sundry connected people in the Windy City who will make out like bandits once the smoke has cleared. But his intentions are clear: he wants the glitz, glamour, and prestige of the Games and he wants it for the Daley machine. What the people of Chicago want doesn't seem to compute.

But we shouldn't be surprised at this point that Obama is tin-eared to the concerns of Chicago residents. As Paul Krugman wrote September 20 on the banker bonuses, "The administration has suffered more than it seems to realize from the perception that it's giving taxpayers' hard-earned money away to Wall Street." Shoveling taxpayers' money into the Olympic maw is no better, especially in these tough times.

No Games Chicago organizer Alison McKenna said to me, "I oppose the Olympics coming to Chicago because instead of putting money toward what people really need, money will be funneled to real estate developers who will be tearing down Washington Park and other important community resources. I oppose the Olympics coming to Chicago because the nonprofit child-welfare agency that I work for had to sustain budget cuts and layoffs, while Chicago has spent $48.2 million on the 2016 Olympic bid, as of July 2009."

There is an urgency to building resistance to these kinds of priorities. Right now, the right wing is shamelessly adopting populist rhetoric and the power of protest to sell an agenda of racism and fear wrapped in taxpayer protection. The big public voice against Obama's trip to Copenhagen was the repellent Republican National Committee chief Michael Steele who believes, and this is hilarious, that "at a time of war and recession" Obama needs to stay home. It shouldn't be a scoundrel like Steele who represents a party of privatization and occupation who delivers that message.

Now is the time to build a pole of attraction on the left for people furious at corporate greed amidst a recession. This needs to happen, and not just for the Windy City. In Vancouver, the struggle is now defensive in nature as our anti-Olympic heroes strive to find a way to sand off the worst edges of the Olympic scythe, cutting through one of the world's most beautiful cities. It's about building a vibrant protest movement that believes in social justice not the rank divisiveness of the right. Obama likes to say that change comes from "outside Washington." It's time to take him at his word.

Dave Zirin writes for The Nation magazine, among other publications. His most recent book is A People's History of Sports in the United States.

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