Olympian Activism: The Unlympic Games compete with the Chicago 2016 Olympic Bid

photo by Sarah Pickering
Last Saturday afternoon, a small but enthusiastic group of activists and community members gathered in Washington Park to play kickball. Class-conscious kickball, that is. The event was part of the Unlympics, a movement that seeks to raise awareness and questions about the prospect of a 2016 Chicago Olympics. Characters dressed as wealthy corporate representatives from Phillip Morris and Walgreens played alongside people playing blue-collar workers and asthmatics lacking proper health care. The events on Saturday were part of a series of “games” organized by the Unlympics Committee. Future competitions include a spelling bee, jump-rope, and karaoke.

Corporate privatization is not usually a phrase that one connects to the Olympics. Images of athletes and medals come to mind faster than those of suited executives and secretive business arrangements. Yet it is exactly this hidden side of the Olympics that activist Anne Elizabeth Moore wants to expose with the Unlympics. Since the bid book for the Chicago 2016 Olympics is due on February 12, Moore is eager to begin a public discourse about the potential effects of holding such an event in Chicago, before it’s too late for Chicagoans to change their minds.

“We won’t have the opportunity to see [the bid] until after the International Olympics Committee sees it,” Moore explains. Important details, such as the location of the Olympic Village, are not accessible until after Chicago has officially submitted a request to host the games. Moore would like this choice to be the result of a public forum, rather than a decision made by a small group of wealthy individuals and companies who donate to the Olympic Bid Committee. The Unlympics Movement is not against the Olympics, but remains critical of the way that it works to permanently change cities like Chicago “without actually asking Chicago,” says Moore.

The website for the Chicago 2016 Olympics shows artist renditions of the altered city. Washington Park will have a 100-acre Olympic Stadium to seat 80,000 spectators, and fifteen minutes away, on some undisclosed location along the “rapidly developing” South Side lakefront, the Olympic Village will house 17,000 athletes. Moore asks, “What will they have to tear down? They’re probably going to start tearing down some of the low income housing facilities, which is very typical of the Olympic movement.” She cited this tendency as starting with Adolf Hitler, who created the first concentration camp in June of 1936, in order to “eradicate the lowest-income residents in the area, and to pretty the place up for the Olympics” in August.

Salem Collo-Julin, a Chicago resident, voiced her fear that if the Olympics come to Chicago, the situation would be similar to what happened in Atlanta twelve years ago. “They basically had a police campaign to get all of the homeless people out of Atlanta,” says Collo-Julin. Kristin Cox, of the Chicago Working Group on Extreme Inequality, stressed that, in addition to displacement, she is concerned about the privatization of previously public spaces. This idea is part of a broader movement that affects libraries, charter schools, and even air space. Cox stresses that “we need to not be selling off everything for profit.”

There is also the question of where the money to fund the Olympics comes from. The Chicago 2016 Olympics website says that the bid is 100 percent privately-funded, supported in part by the “business and philanthropic communities.” “There are people who right now are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars [to the Olympic Bid] that would have gone to nonprofits or philanthropy,” Cox laments. The bid for the 2016 Olympics alone requires a large monetary commitment. “I think we should have had a bid for equity-based public housing,” Collo-Julin proposes.

The decision isn’t up to residents like Collo-Julin, Cox, Moore, or any other members of the Unlympics team. The Board of Directors on the Chicago 2016 Olympics website is comprised of figures like corporate CEOs and people with ties to Mayor Daley. This closed circuit of people is at the core of what the Unlympics objects to. “It’s about who’s able to have conversations and be at the table in order to negotiate what should happen for the Olympics,” says Cox. Moore is associated with several institutions that she says are starting to “get excited” about the Olympics and make decisions that she feels will negatively affect the people that actually work at and use their facilities.

A research institute called inCUBATE acts as a venue for Moore’s Unlympics project and collaborates with her in searching for “alternative funding models and ways to organize projects that don’t necessarily include institutional support,” according to inCUBATE member Abigail Satinsky. Fellow member Roman Petruniak expresses that inCUBATE and Moore share a common goal in “uncovering something that’s not so transparent.” The task is not a small one, but together, with their combination of strength and endurance, these determined individuals are Olympians in their own right.

For more information about the Unlympics, visit unlympics.wordpress.com

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