The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Love and Loss in Chicago

Rendering of Chicago in 2016, had the Olympics been awarded to the city.  Ah, what could have been.  Source: Chicago Bid Book via
Five years ago, just prior to the announcement by the IOC of who would host the 2016 Olympics, Chicago’s bid was assumed to be in a commanding lead.  Unfortunately for the Windy City, When the IOC votes were cast on October 2, 2009, Chicago was stunningly eliminated on the first ballot.   The speculation was that many international IOC delegates were resentful of another polished bid once again from the U.S., and aggressively sought reasons not to support the Chicago bid.  The USOC had been successful in getting Summer Olympics in 1984 (Los Angeles) and 1996 (Atlanta, in a move that particularly stung the international community), and Winter Olympics in 1980 (Lake Placid) and 2002 (Salt Lake City).  If you include the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, that would’ve been six North American Olympics out of 17 site bids years prior to that 2009 vote, or one-third of all Olympic sites over that period.  Relatedly, the South American continent has never hosted an Olympics, and there was a strong contingent that supported the expansion of the Olympic brand to meet its true international mission.  The beautiful Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro ultimately won.
How’s that working out now?
It appears that Rio’s preparation for the 2016 Games is not going well at all.  Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that an IOC vice president spoke out about the lack of progress in Rio.  The damning quote:

“We have become very concerned,” John Coates told the Australian Associated Press. “And this is against a city that’s got social issues that also have to be addressed; a country that’s also trying to deal with the FIFA World Cup coming up in a few months.”

And those social issues he refers to?  Here’s the Atlantic Cities account of recent events there:

“Clashes last week between favela residents and police in Rio de Janeiro led to flaming barricades, the partial shutdown of the iconic Copacabana neighborhood, and at least one shooting victim. Less than six weeks from the start of the World Cup, Rio and its slums appear to be teetering on the brink of chaos.

Favela residents say they’re protesting human rights violations on the part of police forces. Meanwhile, drug dealers are regaining territory amid the chaos, and authorities are leaning on military reinforcements to keep order.”

Here’s hoping that things can turn around in Rio and that the city can have a safe and successful 2014 World Cup (slated to start in six weeks, and also plagued with delays) as well as 2016 Olympics.  But this also begs the question — where would Chicago be today had it won the bid in 2009?

I should note by starting that I was a supporter of Chicago getting the Games at that time, so my perceptions of what-could-have-been may be far rosier than someone who was not a supporter.  And trust me: not everyone in Chicago was a supporter of the Olympic bid.  A Chicago Tribune poll conducted in August 2009 said 47% of respondents supported the bid, while 45% were against it.  Dissent came largely from the South Side, where the Olympic Village and many venues for the Games were proposed as an economic development stimulus for the area.

This is purely my speculation, but I see four things that would be quite evident today had Chicago been awarded the 2016 Olympics:

No construction delays or concerns.  The Chicago bid relied heavily on existing facilities for Olympic venues.  Professional sports venues like Soldier Field, the United Center, Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular Field and Toyota Park, as well as other sites like Allstate Arena, Sears Centre, and sports venues at virtually every college location in Chicago were going to be employed for the Games.  The key missing piece, however, was an appropriate site for track and field events and the Opening and Closing ceremonies.  Chicago would’ve constructed an 80,000-seat temporary stadium in Washington Park on the city’s South Side.  The stadium would’ve been pared down to a 10,000-seat multipurpose venue after the Olympics.  An image of the stadium from the Chicago Bid Book:

Chicago was presumed to have a strong facilities advantage over its competition from Madrid, Tokyo and Rio.

Commercial and residential “boomlet” on the Chicago lakefront.  This is a little harder to speculate on, in part because the Olympic selection came in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  But there is a sense that the Olympics would have provided a boost to investment from the South Loop southward to Hyde Park.  The Olympic Village was proposed for the former Michael Reese Hospital site near 31st Street and the lakefront, in the Bronzeville neighborhood, and it would’ve been converted to residential uses after the Games.  I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Games would have drawn new attention to an often-neglected part of the city, and investment would’ve shot up accordingly.

The “Global City” bat-signal.  Chicago is often viewed by those who are not from here as being on the cusp of global city status but not quite there (best case), or being the most livable of generally unlivable Rust Belt cities (worst case).  I think the Olympics would have served as a strong signal to the international community that Chicago was indeed ready to be a very visible international player, and would’ve begun to attract international investment to a far greater extent than it does today.  That would mean more international businesses attracted to Chicago’s air and rail connectivity to the interior of the nation, and more corporate headquarters moving here — perhaps U.S.-based corporations relocating from more expensive coastal locations, or international corporations seeking to move North American headquarters to a more central location.  Elite educational institutions like Northwestern and the University of Chicago would be viewed even more highly, and other institutions would have received a boost.  Chicago would have gotten a significant profile boost akin to what Los Angeles (1984), Barcelona (1992) and Sydney (2000) received.  (Side note: I often think Atlanta squandered its chance to raise its profile with the ’96 Games.  Rembert Browne at Grantland seems to agree.)

The City’s crime issues would be a bigger national topic of discussion.  Sadly, I don’t think the Olympics would have done anything to stem the violence epidemic that plagues parts of the city today, and even though it does garner lots of national attention now, it would have been even moreso if the Olympics were headed here.  In fact, with a President not only from Chicago, but from the very neighborhood where the Games would’ve occurred, I think Chicago violent crime would’ve become an issue in the 2014 midterm elections because it would have been laid at the feet of President Obama.

So much political, corporate and philanthropic money and energy was thrown at this effort that I think Chicago still hasn’t fully recovered from it.  For 2 1/2 years prior to the October 2009 announcement, this effort was Chicago’s raison d’etre.  It was to be the preeminent achievement of Mayor Richard M. Daley.  But five years after that stunning vote, Chicago is still trying to sort out what it is, and where to go.

2 Responses to “Love and Loss in Chicago”

  1. Anonymous

    I do think there is some anti-U.S. sentiment among the IOC, because they didn't like the way the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were presented, and there was some bribery in getting the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. That's why it didn't surprise me that Chicago lost the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, though it did surprise me how soon it was eliminated, and I knew that Rio de Janeiro was going to win it because there's been a greater focus on the \”BRIC\” countries. Witness the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as well. But now, with Russia wasting no time ruining their international good will and snuffing their post-Olympic afterglow, and the civil chaos and lack of preparation in Rio de Janeiro, I have to wonder if the IOC is having buyer's remorse. In that case, they might retreat back to North America, western Europe, and the more West-friendly countries in Asia.You know which U.S. city I think will be the next to host the Summer Olympics? Philadelphia. Here's why:1. It's an iconic city, being the literal birthplace of the United States.2. It's enjoying a population and economic resurgence after about 40 years of malaise.3. It's hosted international events before.4. It has world-class sports facilities and a lot of developable land around them.5. It's well-connected by rail, air and highway (though the Schuylkill Expressway is a joke).6. It's where Comcast is headquartered, and they own NBC, which has exclusive broadcast rights for all Olympics.As for other cities, here's why I don't see them hosting:1. The combination of size, geographic constraints and lack of developable land would make New York a logistical nightmare.2. Chicago put all it had into the 2016 Summer Olympics bid and got burnt.3. Los Angeles has hosted the Summer Olympics twice already.4. San Francisco lacks the facilities, and the Bay Area is too decentralized to be practical.5. Boston has some geographic constraints, and NIMBYs are very powerful there.6. Any large \”Sun Belt\” city would be instantly rejected because of the prejudice the IOC has against Atlanta.This leaves Philadelphia. \”Philadelphia 2024\” has a nice look and a nice ring to it; don't you think?


  2. Pete Saunders

    You raise an interesting perspective on IOC decision-making that I had not considered — a desire to get the Games in BRIC nations. Three out of the four would have hosted by 2016. I tend to think an Indian city may be some ways away from hosting.Philadelphia is an intriguing choice as the next U.S. city to host the Summer Olympics, for all the reasons you suggest. I could see it happening. I never thought New York's 2012 bid would work because of geographic constraints, and Boston and the Bay Area would have the same issues. LA is done with Olympics hosting. Chicago would stand a good shot if it went again, but it was more than burned. Chicago had its heart ripped out with that loss, and I don't believe we'll ever go for the bid again. But I wouldn't rule out another Sun Belt city — Houston. Houston is as sprawly as Atlanta, if not moreso, but Houston's position as the world's energy capital might make IOC officials look past that. Plus, I think Houston would try to stake a claim as the \”quintessential American city\” to the IOC, and it might stick.



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