2016 Olympics: Windy city holds its breath
As D-day looms for Chicago's bid, David Usborne hears the citizens sharply polarised views about the Games
Thursday 01 October 2009
Lots of Chicagoans have their hearts in their throats about Copenhagen. Like Gwen Sylvain, who already has killer vistas of downtown and Lake Michigan from her lofty shore-side apartment and is dying to have them filled by sailing regattas, rowing races and all the other razzmatazz that the Olympic Games would surely bring. "I'd be right, smack-dab in the middle of it," she gushes with easy glee.
Tomorrow morning the voting of the International Olympic Committee begins on which of four cities – Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo – should host the summer games in 2016. If Ms Sylvain will be among those clinging to their radios or TV sets to hear the outcome, so too will Deborah Taylor. Both women are 58 and retired. But Ms Taylor lives in a different part of town and is hoping for a different result.
"I am more than afraid," she says about the decision that will be taken in the Danish capital, where the pitch for Chicago will be made by the Windy City's mayor of 20 years, Richard Daley, and also by President Barack Obama, ripping a leaf out of Tony Blair's book and becoming the first sitting US president to lobby.
Ms Taylor lives in a Southside African-American neighbourhood that has not been lavished with the same love as the lakeside environs where Ms Sylvain lives – and where the tourists go. More importantly, Ms Taylor's home is one block from Washington Park, the proposed site of the principle Olympic Stadium. She worries that the city, or more particularly Mayor Daley, will evict residents to make way for the developers if the city wins the games. "I don't have any faith because we are low-income people. In this town that means we are dispensable."
While Ms Sylvain, who used to work as a regional manager for AT&T, jokes that she might rent out her apartment for "$80,000 and sleep on the subways" during the games, Ms Taylor, who showed up at a modest but noisy anti-Olympic Games rally outside City Hall on Tuesday evening, is afraid that subway benches are all she and many of her friends will be left with if Chicago wins its bid.
"This is all for the real estate people to help them push the remaining poor out of the city," agreed Craig Althage, a library assistant, who also joined the rally. Around him protesters held banners blazoned with messages like Hands Off My Home, Land Grab and Eminent Domain Abuse, a reference to the power of municipalities to seize properties to make way for development deemed to be for the public good.
"Instead of putting money toward what people really need, money will be funnelled to real estate developers who will be tearing down Washington Park and other important community resources," warned Alison McKenna, an organiser of a protest group called No Games Chicago.
The presentation of Messrs Obama and Daley tomorrow will surely be spectacular. It doesn't take much imagination to see why Chicago might be a terrific host to the games, not least because of its sparkling lakeside setting and iconic skyline. The videos will describe how these games would be kept within an unusually tight footprint up and down the lakeshore and close to downtown.
"When you look at the plan and the spectacular city and the convenience for the athletes against the backdrop of the city... Chicago gets it and understands what the Olympics is about," argued Bart Conner, a 1984 Olympic medal-winner, who is part of a huge Chicago delegation in Denmark.
With Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey on hand too, there will be talk about the vibrant ethnic diversity of the city. And Mr Daley will emphasise the steps he will take to ensure that Chicago can stage the games without going bust. He recently twisted the arm of a compliant City Council to agree it would financially guarantee the games in the event the numbers somehow don't add up.
Mr Daley, whose political future is riding on the IOC voting, has been making the same pitch to the people of Chicago for months. He speaks of regeneration – of civic pride and of the economy. The city is festooned with posters promoting Chicago 2016. Ride on a bus here and you are subjected to a taped message from a former Olympian. Thousands of Chicagoans will be crammed into Daley Plaza downtown tomorrow to watch proceedings in Copenhagen on jumbo TV screens, ready to celebrate if the city wins. Yet hidden from view in Copenhagen will be all the tensions and divisions that a civic project as significant as this was always certain to spawn. And few towns are as politically febrile as Chicago. Mayor Daley is on track next year to become the longest serving mayor ever, eclipsing the previous record set by his father, Richard J Daley. But Chicago is struggling with the effects of the recession. It faces a huge deficit, government workers are being laid off and the city's foreclosure rate is still sky-high. Violent crime still stalks its poorer districts. And Mr Daley has awful approval ratings in the mid-30s.
So there is as much suspicion about the Olympic bid here as there is pride. While the Chicago Bid Committee released a survey this week suggesting that 72 per cent of the city's residents want the games in 2016, a separate poll by the Chicago Tribune told a starkly different story: only 47 per cent wanted the games while 45 per cent were opposed. One other indicator of a city divided on the issue – two tip jars at a Chicago Starbucks, one for pro-Games folk, the other for the no-Games crowd. Guess which one was overflowing – not the one into which Mr Daley would stuff his greenback.
If Chicago wins tomorrow, there will be an eruption of civic pride, of course, just as there was in London four years ago. But support for the bid has been waning because many are afraid, for many reasons. The same Chicago Tribune poll said that 84 per cent of the city is opposed to public funds being spent to stage them, and they have seen how far off track London's budget projections were. Mr Daley says he can get insurance against financial disaster, but coverage will only extend so far.
They are afraid too because anyone who takes the subway now or drives the city's highways knows that its transport system is a wreck. How could it be fixed in time for 2016, particularly remembering how the re-invention of the small pocket of lakeside public land that is now Millennium Park took four years longer than planned? "At the pace things take... I think the horizon for this should be a little longer," suggests Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago.
Further sowing seeds of doubt is a new study from the Anderson Economic Group which finds that the additional net spending that the Games would generate for Chicago – from tourism and spending on construction and operating the games – would be in the region of $4.4bn (£2.74bn), not the $19.2bn the Chicago Bid Committee has been projecting.
Then there is the danger of graft. All those contracts that must be awarded and dollars that must be spent spell trouble. Chicago and corruption go together like baseball and illegal steroids. Wasn't it the Governor of Illinois, who was forced to resign for trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat after last November's presidential election? Yes, Rod Blagojevich is his name. And his predecessor, George Ryan, where is he? In prison.
"Chicago has been ground zero in the past decade for the destruction of public housing (gentrification), political corruption (it ain't just Blagojevich; I can't remember the last Illinois governor who didn't end up behind bars) and police violence (the death-row torture scandals)", Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, unkindly writes. "Bringing the Olympics to this town would be like sending a gift basket filled with bottles of Jim Beam to the Betty Ford Clinic: overconsumption followed by disaster."
There is a joke that IOC means, "If Obama Comes". He will leave for Copenhagen tonight and Chicago will soon find out if his presence is enough to tip the votes in its favour. It would be good news indeed for Mr Daley and for the President, too – and for Ms Sylvain in her eyrie over the lake. But the champagne may go flat quickly for others in Chicago who see nothing but trouble in those Olympic rings.
After London: The other contenders
* Last held in continent: Beijing 2008
* Strengths: Tokyo has been talking up the green aspect of its bid, which includes plans for what it says will be the world's first solar-powered stadium.
* Weaknesses: The fact that Asia last hosted the games in 2008 might hamper Tokyo's chances.
Rio de Janeiro
* Last held in continent: Never
* Strengths: The city's bid is being backed by Pele, and it impressed when hosting the 2007 Pan American Games. And the continent is an Olympics virgin.
* Weaknesses: Brazil is hosting the World Cup in 2014, which some claim could take the limelight away from the Olympics only two years later.
* Last held in continent: Summer Olympics Athens 2004, Winter Olympics Turin 2006.
* Strengths: Madrid already has a number of good venues. Madrid's campaign leader calls it "the safest bid".
* Weaknesses: A successful bid would mean five Olympics in Europe since 2004.
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