Olympic Dreams

“Chicago is a city that is frequently a tale of two cities,” said Terri Johnson of the Jane Addams Hull House Association; if anything, she may have been underestimating. Johnson was introducing a panel of speakers on the 2016 Olympic Games that included members of the city’s bid committee as well as Allen Sanderson, a Senior Lecturer in the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics and one of the Olympic bid’s most prominent academic critics. The panel, which took place in the UofC’s Harris School of General Studies on Thursday, May 29, was attended by forty or fifty concerned community members.

First to speak was the pro-Olympics contingent, which included Professor Bruce Kidd of the University of Toronto. Kidd, although not a stakeholder in the current debate, played leading roles in Toronto’s failed 1996 and 2008 Olympic bids and has studied the impacts of the Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver Olympics. He was actually an opponent of Montreal’s successful 1976 Olympic bid because he felt the city managed it badly and failed to consult communities that would be affected. Although history would seem to have validated his doubts–the Montreal Olympics were a famous financial disaster, leaving debts that took thirty years to pay off–Kidd told the audience that in hindsight, “I have to tell you that those games have been enormously beneficial.” The games, he argued, brought people together and left lasting improvements in infrastructure that might not otherwise have been undertaken. “Olympic Games can be an avenue where people can put their dreams for the city into effect,” Kidd said, and this seemed to summarize the pro-Olympic point: as one audience member put it in a question to Sanderson, “Don’t you agree that throwing a party can be an impetus to clean up the house?”

“I don’t think anyone ever had a party on a Saturday night because they wanted to clean up the house,” replied Sanderson, who argued that while the Olympics might leave behind a legacy of improvements, it would be more prudent to simply spend the money on those projects now. For example, if Chicago’s bid is successful (as all panelists seemed to agree was highly likely), an empty truck parking lot near McCormick Place will become the Olympic Village and then, after 2016, a new public housing complex; but if we want the housing complex, why not just build it now? Sanderson argued that the question we should be asking is “We have a plan; how do the Olympics fit in?” rather than “How can we benefit from hosting the Olympics?” Furthermore, he rejected the pro-Olympic argument that much of the financial backing for the games would be provided by contributions from the private sector; after all, each philanthropist who donates money to make the Olympics happen isn’t donating that money to another worthy cause such as a charity.

This argument, based on the fundamental economic idea of “opportunity cost,” was one of Sanderson’s most persuasive, but Kidd and his fellow pro-Olympic panelists had a response. During Toronto’s bid process for the 1996 Olympics, Kidd’s brother David led an organization, Bread Not Circuses, that like Sanderson argued for spending the city’s money directly rather than using the Olympics as a vehicle for improvements. Toronto’s bid failed, but according to Kidd, the improvements that had been talked about still didn’t materialize. “Sometimes you need a big idea to do a big thing,” Kidd concluded.