When losing is really winning

October 5, 2009

Bob Quellos, a founding member of No Games Chicago, explains why Mayor Richard Daley and his allies have themselves--and their dishonesty--to blame for losing the bid for the 2016 Olympics.

SHOCK WAS the reaction in Chicago as the city's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, after making it as one of four finalists, went down in the first round of voting by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), quicker than Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson.

Chicago officials and the city's business elite mourned the decision, but residents can breathe a sigh of relief.

As Tom Tressor of No Games Chicago told Chicago Indymedia, "Today's decision is going to spare us years of reading about scandals and backroom deals, some of which have already happened. That's the good news. But unfortunately, the problems in our city--including the fact that only 54 percent of our high school students in the city ever graduate--are still here."

THERE WERE a number of factors at play in Chicago 2016's loss. Perhaps the ongoing dispute between the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) didn't help. The USOC has been demanding a bigger portion of television revenues from the IOC simply because many of the biggest advertisers associated with the Games are from the U.S.

Protesters took a stand against Chicago's Olympics bid
Protesters took a stand against Chicago's Olympics bid

Or perhaps it was the final Chicago 2016 presentation to the IOC, which was criticized in the mainstream press as dull. Mayor Richard Daley came off as abrasive--as if he was back home, lecturing the Chicago press or the City Council. The only spark in the presentation came from Barack and Michelle Obama--but it apparently wasn't enough to win over the IOC.

What was apparent from the presentation was that the group sent to Copenhagen to present the Chicago bid is used to getting its way in this city--and that it was incapable of operating outside the bubble of Chicago machine politics.

But what may have hurt Chicago's bid the most was the fact that neither the Chicago 2016 bid team nor the mayor were ever honest with Chicago residents about what it would mean to host the Olympics, which led to an economic plan that was heavy on wishful thinking and light on reality.

Seemingly, the only entities buying Chicago 2016's financial projections were the city's business elite, much of the Chicago media, and the city's politicians. Even the IOC--not known for being overly concerned about the economic prospects of host cities--took an unusual extra 15 minutes during a presentation this past June to grill Daley and the Chicago 2016 team on their plans.

While Daley and Chicago 2016 were telling the IOC that they would be willing to have the city take full financial responsibility for cost overruns, they were telling Chicagoans at the same time that the Olympics wouldn't cost them a dime. At one point, Daley even denied telling the IOC that the city would be willing to sign a contract that would have put Chicago taxpayers on the hook for the overruns.

When the mayor's willingness to sign on the dotted line and leave Chicagoans with the tab was revealed, it created an uproar. The next day's Chicago Sun-Times front-page headline read, "You'll Pay for Their Olympic Games," and aldermen's phone lines rang off the hook with calls from irate residents. This was the beginning of the end of perceived public support for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid.

The Chicago 2016 team went on a tour of the city's wards in a last-minute campaign to rebuild support. But the meetings were highly controlled. Early on, residents were only allowed to ask questions about the Chicago bid--comments weren't allowed.

Residents' anger about the city's priorities couldn't be contained so simply. At one meeting after another, ordinary Chicagoans spoke up about how they felt about the possibility of gentrification, cost overruns, corruption and an overall lack of democracy in the bid process.

By the time the tour of the wards came to a close, resident support for the Games had dropped to less than half of the city's residents, according to a Chicago Tribune poll--with 84 percent against the Olympics coming to the city if taxpayer money was going to be used.

Our organization, No Games Chicago, formed to put up an opposition to the bid team's plans, was able to give an organized voice to the spreading discontent, with a presence at the ward meetings and several demonstrations downtown--including one the week of the Olympics announcement that drew several hundred people.

THE FACTORS behind the IOC's decision may never be known. This body--which runs what is supposed to be a symbol of international good will--is a corrupt group that previously has decided host cities based on which provided the largest bribe.

Whatever its motives, it's clear that Daley was dealt a severe blow. Rumors that this will be his last term as mayor are circulating.

Now that Chicago has lost its Olympics bid, the city already owns the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital--purchased for $85 million as the site of the future Olympic Village.

The Chicago 2016 team has said that residential development of the site would move forward, despite Chicago not hosting the Olympics. But realistically, this site may not see any activity for decades--it is located in an area of Chicago already flooded with new condo units that can't be sold, leaving many developers delinquent on construction loans.

Daley has spent the last three years focused almost exclusively on winning the 2016 Games. This summer, both he and the bid committee tried to intimidate Chicagoans into supporting the Olympics by claiming that this was the only viable economic plan for the future. In the meantime, the city continued cutting jobs and services--unable to find the same time, money and energy for poor and working Chicagoans as it had for the bid campaign.

Unfortunately, Chicago's loss is also a loss for the people of Rio de Janeiro, which won the 2016 games. The crime, corruption, displacement of residents, civil rights violations and financial strains that plague all Games will now be visited on Rio.

The poor in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro have nothing to gain from the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Games are a traveling neoliberal circus that moves from city to city every two years, stealing local resources and leaving the residents of the host city to clean up the mess.

Currently, the cities of Vancouver, Canada; London; and Sochi, Russia are dealing with this grim reality as the bills for the Games in the coming years continue to pile up, and their cities become police states.

This coming winter, opponents of the Games in Vancouver--where taxpayers are responsible for covering $6 billion in Olympic expenses--are calling for an international mobilization from February 10-15 for "a gathering of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist forces to confront corporate invasion, displacement, and state repression."

It will take an international movement to do away with the circus that is the Olympic Games--and it starts in Vancouver.

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