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The Olympic Bid That Could Have Been

By Steve Balkin

The tradition of having an Olympics hosted in one city is outdated. The Olympics has grown too large to be hosted in any one city - with more than 10,000 athletes participating in 33 sports, in 400 events covered by 20,000 journalists and with millions of attendees.

According to the Olympic Charter, "The goal of the Olympics is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." Harmonious means not just harmony between athletes but also harmony of the Games with the environment and local residents in the host cities.

Single-city hosting is inconsistent with the third pillar of the Olympics, protecting the environment. Constructing and maintaining additional buildings, using up parkland, high congestion, and the logistics of accommodating huge influx of visitors lead to environmental damage. Single-city hosting endangers the other two pillars, sport and culture (we can't run and sing if we can't breathe and drink the water). The environmental goal is derived from the generally agreed upon public policy principles of sustainable development: ecological balance, economic security, and social equity.

The Chicago Olympic bid could have been done in a way that seriously recognized environmental sustainability. It would have been good public policy and it would have given Chicago an edge to win. Rather than add to the economic and social problems of sport monopolization with its winner-take-all philosophy, Chicago could have been a global leader on how to manage big events that will be environmentally and socially friendly. Chicago could have emulated Beijing not in deed but in rhetoric in promoting a "Green, High-tech and People's Olympics."

If Chicago's Olympic bid were truly a community-wide effort instead of a City Hall creation, ideas like the ten principles I will suggest below could have strengthened the city's chances of winning the bid - or at least ensured that if we do, the Games will be mutually beneficial to Chicago and the rest of the Midwest.

Here are ten ideas that would have gone a long way toward creating a new-style Olympics consistent with the realities of contemporary urban life in the 21st Century, through a democratic, sustainable, and socially just Olympics. It's too late now, but these ideas show just how deficient Chicago's bid is, and how short-sighted civic leaders were when they left the public out of the planning process.

This is the bid we could have had:

1. Keep the City of Chicago as the focus and core of the 2016 Olympics but substantially decentralize at least 50% of the events and venues across the region defined roughly as within a 300-mile radius of Chicago.

2. Connect the sites of the Olympics across the region with high-speed rail.

3. Spread the events across a greater time-span so fans can watch
more events. This can also accommodate the travel time needed between places.

4. Reconfigure the opening and closing ceremonies - hold them in multiple cities, using split screens on TV with some pre-recorded footage.

5. Use existing stadiums and facilities across the region: build no new stadiums or sports facilities. Presently, of the 35 venues required, 17 need to be built. According to the The International Olympic Committee's Agenda 21 document, "The creation of new sports facilities must be confined to cases in which demand cannot be satisfied by using or renovating existing facilities."

6. Directly or indirectly, do not displace individuals, housing, and communities.

7. Other than for rail lines, do not use eminent domain. If additional land or buildings is required, pay a premium above market price to make the acquisition voluntary rather than trample on property rights.

8. Spread benefits across the region to low-income people and to cities hard-hit by de-industrialization. If new housing is to be built, 100% should be affordable housing.

9. Respect human rights and construct systems for fostering friendliness and tolerating dissent. Sterility is not friendly.

10. Make all contracts, bidding, and social control activities open
and transparent with auditing by an independent outside group and with full and immediate disclosure on a website.

What would such an Olympic bid have looked like? Imagine opening ceremonies not only in Chicago but in cities with venues Chicago lacks or in places where some of the events can be easily spun off. Detroit and Indianapolis would have been good candidates as Olympic partner cities, maybe with help from Urbana, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; and Pontiac, Michigan. Pontiac has the Olympic-size Silver Dome which can hold more 80,000 people. Sailing, boxing, gymnastics, and basketball in Chicago; soccer, track and field and bicycling in Detroit; aquatics, volleyball, fencing and weightlifting in Indianapolis.

There are precedents. Seattle has considered regional and bi-national Olympic hosting. Toronto is currently developing a bid for the Pan Am games based on facilities in cities around Lake Ontario, east and west of Toronto. Beijing shared some of the Olympics with six other cities, including Shanghai (Soccer) 700 miles away and Hong Kong (Equestrian) 1,200 miles away.

Chicago's 2016 Bid proposal designates one city in the region, Madison, Wisconsin for two of the venues: road cycling and mountain biking. And it does use stadiums in places such as Pasadena, California; St. Louis, Missouri, and East Rutherford, New Jersey for preliminary soccer events. While a step in the right direction, these constitute a very small share of the events.

The big investment for Midwest regional hosting would have been in badly needed high-speed rail. In fact, a multibillion-dollar investment for high-speed rail systems has already been made from the Obama stimulus package for the U.S. as a whole. A little foresight could have made national high-speed rail the centerpiece of a Chicago Olympic bid's legacy provision - and generated national enthusiasm for the Games.

Rather than putting corporate and public money into sport facilities and superfluous housing projects, an investment in a public transportation system that would reduce automobile use and airport construction projects, make for a cleaner and more connected region, and a safer friendlier Olympic games appropriate for the 21st Century.

That is the opportunity we have missed.


Steve Balkin is a professor of economics at Roosevelt University.


Posted on April 24, 2009

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