Olympics the Chicago Way


Most American cities chose not to bid on the 2016 summer Olympics and with good reason. With the exception of the 1984 Los Angeles games, the Olympics has proved a big time money loser in city after city. More often than not, it has been staged more for the prestige – think of Berlin in 1936 or China in 2008 – it brings to regimes, particularly autocratic ones.

In Chicago, prestige is important, but graft is the real king. In Chicago, one of the most corrupt big cities, the Olympics represents, more than anything, a grand chance for a giant heist.

Economists have a technical term for profiting from the political process: it's called rent-seeking. Chicago's politically favored businesses, unions, and insiders with ties to Mayor Daley and Alderman Burke have perfected this activity. The Olympics just provide another opportunity to clean up at the public expense.

This is how it works. On Chicago public works projects, those on the inside hope to get overpaid at the expense of Illinois and federal taxpayers. Now throw in the Olympics where opportunities for such activities have long been rife with corruption and you can understand the glee in the Chicago machine’s eyes.

Right now there isn’t any financial guarantee from the federal government. But Chicago's power elite hopes Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, and others can convince the Congress at some point to help with Chicago's Olympic sized costs if they get the 2016 games. They can always call it a “stimulus”!

Yet is the average Chicagoan thrilled at this prospect to get reamed? A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll shows a slide in public support:

Nearly as many city residents oppose Mayor Richard Daley's Olympic plans, 45 percent, as support them, 47 percent. And residents increasingly and overwhelmingly oppose using tax dollars to cover any financial shortfalls for the Games, with 84 percent disapproving of the use of public money.

The poll comes a month before the International Olympic Committee selects the host city for the 2016 Olympics. Chicago is competing against Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro.

The new results show slippage from the 2-to-1 support found in a Tribune poll in February, and experts said the findings could hurt Chicago's chances.

But fading public support in Chicago could be overwhelmed by political factors. With 107 votes on the International Olympic Committee(IOC), the African votes are considered the swing votes. President Obama made a special appeal to the African IOC voters. WLS TV reported:

European IOC members may be inclined to support Madrid. Asian members may back Tokyo. There is one continent whose members are not aligned: Africa. Chicago's bid team traveled to Abuja, Nigeria, to meet with Africa's 16 IOC members, who may hold the swing votes.

The fear of cost overruns, a history of bloated union contracts, and fraud has tempered enthusiasm for the Olympics. Mayor Daley has had to promise tighter oversight on the whole Olympics process. Yet this has not prevented an effective grass roots opposition organization from springing up. No Games Chicago has been instrumental at raising questions of money and accountability, dampening public support for the games. No Games Chicago spokesman Thomas Tesser explains:

The City Council voted to give oversight of the City's Olympic commitments to Ald. Ed Burke, chairman of the Finance Committee. This is the final cruel joke played by the Council on the taxpayers. Burke has become a millionaire doing deals with firms that have business with the city and has collected millions in campaign contributions from firms doing business with the city. Pat Ryan, the chairman of the 2016 effort, contributed $3,000 to Burke. Burke didn't mention that he has ten clients who are major donors to the 2016 Committee, giving a total of at least $1 million in cash and services, and likely much, much more.

But, Alderman Burke isn't the only insider benefiting from the Olympics. Real Estate developer Michael Scott also stands to gain. The Chicago Tribune reports of Scott: "A member of Mayor Richard Daley's team working to bring the Olympics to Chicago has quietly arranged to develop city-owned land near a park that would be transformed for the 2016 Summer Games, potentially positioning himself to cash in if the Games come here."

Michael Scott is also President of the Chicago Public School board. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Scott

has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating how students are chosen for admission to some of the city's most elite public schools.

This new scandal might put in to question Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's leadership as CEO of the Chicago Public School system.

All the recent skepticism of the cost of the games couldn't stop Chicago insiders from getting the stunning vote of support from Chicago's City Council. This is still a one-party, all-machine, all-the-time town. In a vote of 49-0, the City Council showed that there is not a single vote to back the nearly fifty percent who oppose Mayor Daley's plans.

Michelle Obama will lead a Chicago delegation for the last pitch for the games in Copenhagen next month. Some speculate that President Obama will make a dramatic last minute appearance to make Chicago's case in front of the International Olympic Committee. No one knows for sure whether Chicago will get the 2016 games but if it does, it will be a grand feeding time at the trough for the insiders and ever bigger burdens on the less well-connected businesses and individuals who inhabit Chicago.

Steve Bartin is a resident of Cook County and native who blogs regularly about urban affairs at http://nalert.blogspot.com. He works in Internet sales.

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