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So, no Olympics. Now what?
November 19, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Were you in favor of bringing the Olympics to Chicago? Just curious. You seem pretty plugged in to the Chicago scene. I'd be interested in your take on whether it was a good idea or not.

— Astro, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

At first I wasn't going to answer this question, Astro. For starters, you addressed it to my assistant, Little Ed, who on his best days dwells in a persistent vegetative state. More important, what was the point? It was like asking if you should have proposed to that woman who dumped you for the samba dancer. However, on mulling the situation for some weeks it seemed to me we ought to try to salvage something from the situation. With that in mind I propose the following as lessons learned.

1. We should have had the ward guys get out the vote.

I'm not saying more aggressive distribution of lawn signs and garbage carts would have made a significant difference, but in view of the outcome it was probably worth a try. Let's review: (1) From all one reads and hears, we honest to God thought we were, if not the team to beat, at least one of the leading contenders. (2) We came in dead last. This suggests inadequate political intelligence, or to put it more bluntly, we didn't have a clue. 

One hears the process was opaque. Maybe, but the Brazilians figured it out. We're now told a great deal of politicking went on beforehand to ensure that anybody but Chicago won. One presumes this wasn't conducted by hand signals and ESP, but that conventional means of communication were employed, and the only reason we didn't hear about it was we weren't sufficiently well wired. I don't suggest if we'd known what was up we'd have been able to do much about it, but if we'd had an earlier inkling of how things were trending, we might have saved ourselves the fifty million bucks.

2. The whole thing never made much sense from a risk/reward standpoint.

I don't share the view that a Chicago Olympics meant certain financial disaster. On the other hand, the risks were considerable, and the potential rewards small. Yes, some prestige attaches to the host city. The fact remains that the Olympics require billions of dollars and years of preparation, and last two and a half weeks. They leave a few legacy investments the host city can make use of, and many more it can't. They suck up every available local resource for years, and for what? Does it mark the host city or nation's emergence on the world stage?

For some it does. No doubt the Chinese feel the Beijing Olympics were worth whatever they cost. Barcelona, a decaying backwater prior to hosting the 1992 games, invested shrewdly and has since become one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations.

But those cases are the exception rather than the rule. The Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 were considered a model of efficient management, and brought the city much favorable attention, but it's not like L.A. previously had wallowed in obscurity. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were considered an embarrassment at the time due to excessive commercialization and logistical shortcomings (the fatal bombing didn't help); one can find more positive things said of the games since, but few would claim they noticeably enhanced Atlanta's international stature. London assuredly will be regarded as one of the world's great cities after the 2012 Olympics; it's considered that now.

My point is that the Olympics are only rarely transformational, and Chicago in any case is already transformed. In 2008 the town brought in record numbers of foreign tourists, and this in an off year. Yes, we can always use more publicity, but there are more cost-effective ways to get it — if you're looking for global emotional impact, for example, it's hard to beat a president-elect giving his victory speech in your front yard. Let's be blunt: would the 2016 Olympics have made a difference to Chicago? Sure. But they matter to the Brazilians more.   

3. Now we can focus on more important things.

I realize that's what losers always say. It's true just the same. We've arrived at a watershed moment — not just Chicago but all cities. It has nothing to do with the esteem in which the world holds us, but how we'll live our lives. We in the U.S. have grown up in an era of seemingly limitless abundance that's drawing to a close. The skill with which we adapt to radically changed circumstances will make all the difference. We'll need to share scarce resources; there will be more of us packed into a relatively small space.

That needn't be painful; it's what cities have traditionally been like, and you can see the experience has its entertaining aspects. Someone whose idea of the good life is an acre lot and an SUV will have a more difficult adjustment. Nonetheless, there's likely to be a great deal of internal rearrangement as metropolitan areas adapt to new conditions — rising energy costs above all. Perhaps I'm being alarmist, but my guess is that in fifty years living in a densely built-up city won't be merely an attractive choice; it'll be the only choice, except for the very wealthy or the stubbornly agrarian. Great strain will be placed on transportation, housing, schools, and other urban infrastructure, and substantial investments will need to be made, starting basically now. The available funds won't be adequate even without the Olympics. With the games going to Rio instead … well, it's only natural to be miffed. But it's probably just as well.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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