The Tail Is Already Wagging Our Dog
By ALLEN R. SANDERSON
With about a year to go before the International Olympic Committee
(IOC) selects from among Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo for
the honor of being the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games, there are
strong signals that Chicago will prevail—perhaps in a cakewalk—in the
October 2, 2009, Copenhagen vote.
Sports betting markets,
populated with folks who are wagering with their own money and thus
have a personal financial stake in being right (as opposed to those who
spout “free” opinions on sports-talk radio or in the press) make
Chicago the overwhelming favorite. Complementing that are sentiments
from informal cocktail-party exchanges and tea leaves.
Continuity inherent in a Barack Obama victory next month, coupled
with the likelihood of Richard M. Daley still being the mayor in eight
years, might put risk-averse IOC voters more at ease and trump the
natural sympathy for Rio—the games have never been held in South
America—and Chicago’s new-kid-on-the-block status among more familiar
locales and faces.
In addition, the IOC itself, never one to leave money on the table,
can expect to rake in much more from a bidding war among American
broadcasters for the 2016 rights if the games are held in the United
Thus many, though not all, signs are pointing increasingly toward Chicago.
However, there are also ominous signs that the attempt to “stir the
soul” (Chicago’s motto or tag-line as a candidate city) will end up
stirring wallets, as well.
When a teacher’s union and its members want more money or less work,
they always couch the appeal as being “for the children.” When ardent
environmentalists or their minions in Congress push their pet agendas,
it’s, of course, “to save the planet.” Anti-government stances and
excessive appeals to patriotism are the counter-parts from the other
side of the political aisle.
Already, even before Chicago submits its revised bid in February or
welcomes IOC delegates in the spring, City Hall rhetoric, negotiating
patterns with special-interest groups and proposed public policy
initiatives, from CTA renovations to Buckingham Fountain upgrades,
almost invariably now carry the “it’s for the Olympics” justification.
Sensible long-term urban planning, whether it be for the grossly
overused feel-good term “infrastructure” or to begin to address some
consequences of rising income inequality with the development of
affordable housing, should not be based on a two-week party seven years
from now. The (re)configuration of the network for rail lines,
improvements to parks and roadway and the location of other civic
amenities should be largely independent of whether Chicago plays host
in 2016 or not.
In terms of dogs and tails, or carts and horses, we should have
asked at the outset and must continue to ask as we proceed down these
paths, “How would the Olympics fit into our overall game plans?” and
not, “How can we modify our plans to accommodate a stadium located here
and a swimming pool over there?” For example, absent the Olympics, is
the area designated for the athletes’ village (and subsequent
conversions) the best long-term use of that prime real estate? Are
South Side residents clamoring for a 10,000-seat amphitheater?
One of the least important components of 21st century life in the
city is being given far too much weight in the determination of the
most important features. The 2016 Games should be an afterthought, not
a forethought. Using the deadline of an upcoming dinner party as an
excuse to finally clean one’s home is not a sound management strategy.
Olympic facilities in Sydney (from the 2000 Olympics) and Athens
(the 2004 Summer Games) remain woefully underutilized and constitute
significant on-going financial drains for maintenance. Without a
permanent tenant, even Beijing’s national stadium, the Bird’s Nest,
will follow down that same path shortly. With a little luck, for
Chicago, the net cash flow from being the host city could be positive,
but also very small in comparison with other public “investments”—in
politics, governments invest while private citizens only spend or
waste—over the next decade.
The decision to renovate Soldier Field, a hideous, obsolete,
dysfunctional facility that with Valium and a little foresight could
have served as a permanent location for the opening and closing
ceremonies (and track & field events) in 2016, as well as a much
better long-term home for the Bears and the venue for future Super
Bowls, NCAA Final Four games and other big-ticket events. Cost-overruns
that more than doubled the reconstruction outlays for the Dan Ryan
Expressway or Millennium Park mean that other state or city
improvements had to be postponed or eliminated. This should give us
pause and concern. Private contributions to plug deficits are not a
no-tax-dollars-were-used escape contingency because they entail the
economist’s familiar “opportunity cost” refrain: regardless of the
source, money given for X is not available for Y.
Daniel Burnham exhorted us to “make no little plans.” The
admonishment not to make huge, unwise ones is equally applicable. In
the past half- century, the ex ante promises of most Olympic Games far
surpass the ex post reality. May Chicago go for the gold, not the
Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago