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Chicago's 2016 Olympics: What It Meant And Why It Didn't Happen

By  Sam Cholke and Tanveer Ali | July 8, 2016 5:46am | Updated on August 3, 2016 10:04am

WASHINGTON PARK — If Richard M. Daley had his way, Chicago would already be brimming with the first of the up to 8 million visitors who were expected to descend on the city for the 2016 Olympic Games.

If the International Olympic Committee had chosen Chicago instead of Rio de Janeiro in 2009, a $400 million Olympic stadium in Washington Park would have been finished (maybe) and crews would have been putting up flags and banners in preparation for the opening ceremonies July 22.

A man-made river of white water rapids would have flowed by Northerly Island, while archers would be readying to nock an arrow aimed at the skyline in Grant Park, bikers would be tumbling over a new BMX track in Douglas Park and divers would be poised 33 feet over shimmering new pools in Washington Park.

Sam Cholke talks about Chicago's failed Olympic bid.

Meanwhile, the city and its businesses would have been deep into a mad dash for the estimated $7 billion being spent by tourists and visitors before, during and after the games. The games would have drawn an international cadre of interlopers also hoping for a cut, with most of the money being won or lost during the two-week competition itself.

After the games started, every train in the city would have been packed as if rush hour ran around the clock as tourists poured from hotels Downtown to watch BMX races at Douglas Park or wrestling at McCormick Place or high-jumping at Washington Park.

Two lanes on each of four major highways in the city — and four lanes of Lake Shore Drive — would have been off limits to residents who normally use them daily. Instead, the dedicated lanes would ferry Olympics organizers and athletes everywhere, from airports to a private beach at the Olympic Village in the South Loop to the 80,000-seat Olympic stadium in Washington Park.

The Chicago Police Department would be larger by at least a 1,000 officers than it is now, according to the proposal. A private security force of 7,000 would also have been monitoring the games alongside 25,000 federal law enforcement officers. Since the city would also have become a potential target for terrorism, as many as 5,000 U.S. military troops would be patrolling the lake and skies.

At the Olympics' peak, 32 competitions would be happening simultaneously across all the venues as an estimated 3.6 billion people — half the world’s population — tuned in at some point to nearly 100,000 hours of coverage by stations around the globe.

And who knows, maybe Daley would still be mayor and watching it all unfold.

[Chicago 2016 Olympic bid]

Looking back

As Chicago now wrestles with fears of having potentially the bloodiest summer in decades and a worsening financial outlook, it might be hard to fathom that seven years ago so many of the city’s resources were spent bringing the world to the city — and particularly the South Side — for the Olympics.

But at the time, the Olympics — which would have been the city's largest event since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 — was a promise of transformation for long-neglected neighborhoods desperately in need of revitalization, tempered by fears that the games could also lead to many longtime residents getting pushed out of their homes. It came during a huge period of growth in the city, which wanted to show itself off to the world.

Just proposing the Olympics was a massive undertaking, a sales pitch that cost $80 million to make and diverted talent away from city government, nonprofits and foundations to work on the bid for nearly four years, many leaders now say. Although there were plenty of people against the bid, the effort brought many in the city together and promised to boost civic pride like no other event could.

But was it all worth it? Would the city have even benefited from the Olympics if it had gotten it? And why didn’t Chicago get it in spite of all the praise for the plan at the time that reportedly had Chicago locked neck and neck with Rio?

Then-mayor Richard Daley (left) and Pat Ryan, chairman of the Chicago 2016 bid team, traveled to Copenhagen in 2009 only to learn Chicago would not host the Olympics. [Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]

The promise of the Olympics

Imagine every festival, concert and sporting event in the city happening at once, and that's close to what the Olympics would have been like. But even more than typical events in the city, the games would have  brought millions of people to parts of the South Side that have rarely been tourist destinations.

Daley, toward the end of his record 22 years in office, promised the games would transform Chicago into a “global city.”

“The Olympics would provide a platform to show off our city to literally billions of people,” Daley said in 2006 when first publicly broaching the idea of hosting the Olympics. “There would be strong benefits for tourism and economic development as well as new housing and other capital investments.”

Daley promised the $3.8 billion investment that would be expected if he could persuade the International Olympic Committee to bring the games to Chicago would return $22 billion in tourism and new economic activity.

He guaranteed the city would do it on the cheap, using as many existing venues as possible and avoiding the follies of other cities that sank billions into new infrastructure. Daley made sure the nonprofit in charge of the bid, Chicago 2016, and his hand-picked leader, Aon Corp. founder Pat Ryan, was with him on that.

“You should not expect a two-week event to pay for 30 years of infrastructure improvements,” said John Murray, the chief bid officer and who was in charge of the strategy for the Olympics proposal, in a recent interview with DNAinfo.

He said Chicago’s plan understood that cities lose money on building infrastructure for the Olympics, not on running the games, so Chicago’s sales pitch had no grand plans for anything like a new "L" line and relied on existing resources as much as possible.

Businesses and foundations contributed the tens of millions it took to even work up the proposal. Just explaining that plan to the IOC involved 300 people from Chicago making technical presentations, with many more behind the scenes working on the logistics, Murray said.

The plan called for gussying up 16 existing venues. Soldier Field was to host soccer, and McCormick Place would host everything from table tennis to weightlifting and gymnastics.

Fifteen venues — mostly temporary — would be built. Northerly Island would be turned into a center for volleyball and boating, including a tiny river of rapids for slalom kayaking. Douglas Park on the West Side would have been remade with temporary facilities for gymnastics and cycling events.

“Taking advantage of that area just seemed like a natural choice,” said Tom Kerwin, who at the time was running the team of planners and architects working on the bid at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “We really wanted it to engage in all parts of the city.”

The largest venue would have been the 80,000-seat stadium in Washington Park on the South Side. The area in and around the park would have hosted seven events, including swimming, diving, track and field and the opening ceremonies.

The Olympics were to be the largest investment in the park since its construction, with a new pool left after the games for Dyett High School. In addition, the General Jones Armory would be converted into a new amenity for the park, and the main stadium, in a stripped down version, would also remain.

“These Olympic stadiums can easily become white elephants, and they often have,” Kerwin said. “It’s an enormous waste of resources.”

LAUNCH: A Look Back on the Chicago 2016 Olympic Bid

Cities often don’t have any use for Olympic stadiums after the games. Chicago planned to reduce the size of the $300 million arena to 10,000 seats after the event to avoid such a burden on the South Side. Olympics planners even considered recycling London’s 2012 Olympic stadium and having it shipped overseas to be rebuilt in Washington Park.

The three-hour opening ceremonies would have been at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 22, in Washington Park — a date when temperatures average 80 degrees and the city is at its most humid at 83 percent humidity on average.

Lake Shore Drive would have been jammed with cars and buses ferrying the 200,000 athletes, trainers and staff under a new promenade over the road connecting the 21 buildings housing athletes to their private beach and training facilities on the shore at 29th Street, where Michael Reese Hospital once stood.

At 9 a.m. on July 23 the games would have started in earnest — beach volleyball and rowing at Northerly Island and volleyball, basketball and handball at McCormick Place all starting simultaneously.

[Chicago 2016 Olympic bid]

Two-thirds of the visitors to the games were expected to get to and from the venues using Metra and CTA commuter rail because there were no plans to provide parking at any venues.

Many visitors coming from hotels Downtown would get off the Metra Electric Line trains at 59th Street for the long parade of Olympics celebrations down the Midway Plaisance boulevard leading to Washington Park and the main stadium.

There would have been crowds everywhere to watch the competitions on giant LED screens set up in parks, particularly Downtown, for those without tickets. But the neighborhoods would have been somewhat sheltered. Plans called for a strict permit-parking style system that was meant to discourage tourists from driving to the games.

For the first week after the opening ceremonies, the South Side around Washington Park would have seen a relatively light schedule, with only indoor swimming and diving competitions held in Washington Park and six days of field hockey matches being played in Jackson Park. Then on July 29, the competition would move back to the Olympic Stadium for track and field events for 10 straight days, capped by a three-hour closing ceremony scheduled for 6 p.m. on Aug. 7.

Then, after the Aug. 12-28 Paralympics in Chicago, the three years of construction would have reversed, and the long process of dismantling or converting all the venues started, making Washington and Douglas parks and Northerly Island construction sites for more than four years.

“I thought the physical plan was smart and not why we lost,” Kerwin said.

Elation and fear

In the neighborhoods, particularly those that ring Washington Park, some were elated over what the games could bring to the South Side — but there was also a wariness of outside powers promising to transform the area.

Homeowners who were banking on property values rising — as well as Daley allies in the neighborhood — were the loudest supporters.


Shirley Newsome was one of the supporters of the Olympics coming to Chicago and was brought on by Chicago 2016 to help convince residents along the south lakefront it would be a net benefit for their communities. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

Shirley Newsome, who has lived in the Oakland neighborhood since 1979 and spent more than 10 years with then-Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) trying to lure developers to her neighborhood and North Kenwood, was one of the biggest boosters of the games coming to the South Side. She was quickly brought on by Chicago 2016 to woo the wary.

“Go back to 1963, I can show you areas where nothing has happened,” Newsome said in an interview. “You need something to catalyze it and spark inspiration.”

She saw the Olympics as a way to lure development at a time when there was a glut of newly vacant land from the then-recent demolition of public housing projects under the CHA's Plan for Transformation.

“I think the ‘transformation’ sites would have been completed, and we would be the kind of community we were before,” Newsome said. “If the city had just followed through on a couple of those things, it would have been a boon to the South Side.”

But those less trusting of the mayor were unfazed by the promises of the bid.

Delmarie Cobb, who's lived near 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive since 1969, is a veteran political organizer on the South Side. When Chicago 2016 called asking her for help organizing rallies in support of the games, she said "no."

“People were going to get displaced; it was not going to be good,” said Cobb, who nevertheless admits she loves big events like the Olympics. “I was against the Olympics, and I wasn’t going to help it drive me out of my house.”

She said she felt there was no way to stop the entrenched allies of the mayor from profiting off the Olympics at the expense of those in the neighborhood. When she saw a home on her block list for $1.5 million, double the value it eventually sold for by banking on the housing boom and the Olympics fever to lure buyers, she said she worried the draw would be too strong for homeowners to resist cashing out their homes and leaving the neighborhood.

Between Cobb and Newsome was a broad middle of people who wanted the games, or didn’t have strong feelings either way, and recognized the bid was moving forward regardless of their own feelings. It was a rare time when the very powerful mayor needed the South Side to back him and people were in a position to cut a deal for their support.

In response to concerns from Olympics officials that the city had no "skin in the game," the mayor had to get unanimous support from aldermen to put up $500 million of taxpayer money to cover cost overruns for the Olympics.

Preckwinkle had been one of five aldermen, including two others whose wards would include Olympics sites, to vote against the bid for the Olympics in 2007, particularly over concerns of that financial guarantee. She was in a unique position to get concessions from the mayor as she tried to quell a rising choir of voices against the Olympics in her ward from a coalition of neighborhood and labor groups under the banner of Communities for an Equitable Olympics.

“We were not in support of the games coming to Chicago without a community benefits agreement,” said Jay Travis, one of the organizers of the group. “We had concerns the Olympics would exacerbate gentrification.”

With Preckwinkle’s support, the group was able to secure commitments to hire minority-owned firms for contracting and to set aside units for affordable housing in the Olympic Village after the Olympics were over.

Because of Preckwinkle’s backing, the debate over a community benefits agreement was the only way for many to voice concerns about the Olympics and not get entirely shut out of the process.

Cecilia Butler, the longtime chairman of the Washington Park Advisory Council, came out publicly against the Olympics only after Chicago was knocked out of the running.

“All the time we knew that if you wanted a seat at the table, you couldn’t publicly denounce the Olympics,” Butler said.

She said she knew after the Olympics bid was over that a lot of the attention focused on the South Side would turn elsewhere.

To a large extent, it did when the IOC knocked Chicago out in the first round of voting on Oct. 2, 2009.

The Chicago 2016 Olympic bid came to an end in October 2009. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]

Why Chicago didn’t get the games

Many in the city were shocked that when it came time to vote among the four candidate cities, Chicago was knocked out in the first round by a large margin. It was a hard blow for residents who'd been told for three years by local and national bid boosters that Chicago's proposal was the strongest and could only lose by the slimmest of margins — and only in the final round of voting.

But insiders said there were problems for Chicago as early as 2006.

Rio de Janeiro’s inclusion on the shortlist in July 2008 with Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid, despite having a technical review that just barely met the IOC’s standards, had Murray from Chicago 2016 worried. He’d seen as early as 2006, during initial research for the bid, that Rio would pose real problems for Chicago if it stayed in the running and presented the lure of the first Olympics in South America.

“When we saw that, we saw there might be forces at work to help Rio, even if it didn’t have the technical skills to make it,” Murray said.

Other insiders also began to see the problems outside Chicago’s control looming early as the U.S. Olympic Committee made a grab for more of the revenue from the games with the launch of a new cable network, a move that sparked a very bitter and public fight with the IOC.

“We realized in the middle of the process that was a problem,” Kerwin said. “We didn’t realize how bad it was until the vote — at least for Chicago.”

Economics professors Allen Sanderson of the University of Chicago and Robert Baade of Lake Forest College found in their analysis of Chicago’s bid that the draw of the first Olympics in South America and the USOC’s mismanagement — combined with Chicago’s political culture — doomed the bid.

“Appearing to rely on ‘The Chicago Way,’ a reference to the well-known tactic of riding roughshod over anyone who deemed to question or criticize a decision, as well as producing information only on a need-to-know-basis or when cornered, the Chicago 2016 insiders and government officials did not create friends nor smooth feathers,” the professors wrote.

Opposition to the games solidified locally in July 2009 as the City Council prepared to sign off on the host city contract that put city taxpayers on the hook for any losses if ticket sales and sponsorship deals didn’t cover the $2.4 billion tab to run the Olympics.

“You think you’ll get jobs? You’ll be lucky to [get jobs to] sell tickets — there’s nothing here for you,” said Tom Tressor, one of the lead organizers of No Games Chicago.

Unlike the other three cities in the running, Chicago was the only one with an organized protest movement that worked to drive down support in public opinion polls and also traveled abroad to persuade the IOC to choose any city but Chicago.

Days before the decision on who would host the 2016 Olympics, five demonstrators were arrested after interfering with city workers who were hanging an Olympic banner on the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]

And the other cities in the running were carefully watching as Chicago’s taxpayers got cold feet with the IOC vote quickly approaching.

“When Chicago’s polling dropped below 50 percent after Mayor Daley announced that he had no choice but to sign the host city contract and its unlimited guarantees, Chicago was in real trouble,” said Michael Payne, a consultant on Brazil’s bid and former head of marketing for the IOC.

And when Chicago was out of the running for the Olympics, it wasn’t long before Daley decided to step down, too, after six terms in office.

What now?

“Having Rahm Emanuel as mayor is part of the hangover,” said Tressor of No Games Chicago.

Those who were closest to the mayor during the Olympic bid wouldn’t say why he chose not to run for a seventh term, but those with inside knowledge about the city's bid said they believed Daley would have tried to stay in office if Chicago had been picked.

“That was his baby; he was really doing everything he could to get the Olympics,” said Newsome, who was out selling the Olympics plan in the neighborhoods. “It would have been the true culmination of his legacy.”

It was also supposed to help ease a lot of the thorny issues with unemployment and worsening city finances that were instead handed over to Emanuel to solve.

“I think the Olympics would have been fantastic for the city despite everything with the economic downturn. It would have been a net positive,” said Murray, the chief bid officer.

But the true scale of the disinvestment in the neighborhoods was revealed to the entire city, and especially those in charge of running the ship during the bid process, as the city’s bleak financial outlook became increasingly difficult to ignore.

“I think it would have been great for the city, but in hindsight it might have been a burden considering what else is going on in the city financially,” said Kerwin, the lead architect on the bid. “Perhaps it might have been for the best because the financial burdens are real.”

The bid made clear how little the city had been investing in many of the parks it now proposed to make over for the Olympics.

Park advocates said Washington Park hadn’t gotten much attention in 50 years, and those working on the bid said many of their co-workers had never seen the park before it was part of the Olympics proposal.

“Nothing’s been done for Washington Park since the discussion of the Olympics,” Butler said. “Nothing’s changed.”

A recent analysis of the park by an expert on Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the park, found that there has been no significant replanting of trees in the park in 80 years, and it now has half the number of trees it did in the 1930s.

The Washington Park neighborhood shared a similar fate, and developers from outside the neighborhood largely left after the Olympic fever broke.

Ghian Foreman, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation and a resident of North Kenwood, was one of the developers who stayed.

He said property values in the neighborhood suffered a double blow when the market corrected for the speculation on the Olympics and the housing bubble burst.

Since the Olympics bid, the neighborhood has seen more of its residents leave and major institutions, like the Chicago Baptist Institute, put their buildings up for sale. Vacant lots continue to proliferate, with some estimates now saying nearly half of the neighborhood is empty land.

Other parts of the the South Side fared better though, and are finally returning to the slow growth that preceded the Olympics and the housing bubble.

Plans from 2007 to replace a liquor warehouse in Kenwood with a grocery store were finally realized when a Wal-Mart opened in 2014. Draper and Kramer’s 30-year plan to redevelop Lake Meadows, a housing and retail complex next to the site where the Olympic Village was proposed, is now back on.

And although the site for the Obama Presidential Library hasn't been finalized, Washington Park is one of two finalists, along with Jackson Park.

[Chicago 2016 Olympics bid]

What did Chicago get from the bid?

If the city was out to prove with the Olympics that it could still live up to Daniel Burnham’s charge to “make no little plans,” it certainly drew up something bigger than has been accomplished since.

It was something akin to planning the World’s Columbian Exposition all over again, to prove Chicago could still “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence,” in Burnham’s words.

“We really harnessed the passion and breadth of the city,” Murray said. “It’s hard to generate that enthusiasm and focus on a day-to-day basis, and it didn’t go away, but it certainly diminished.”

Murray said when he traveled abroad before the Olympics bid, people often only talked about Chicago's sports teams and violence. He said now when he travels, he more often finds foreigners talk about the city much more broadly and with greater familiarity.

“That kind of exposure you just can’t buy,” Murray said.

The Olympic bid also made an impact on the city's bid for the Barack Obama presidential library.

Developer Ghian Foreman said he and other local developers are now better prepared to make sure they get development that benefits the community as speculators come back hunting for deals near potential presidential library sites.

“I definitely like the idea of getting the library much better, it’s more of a legacy,” Foreman said.

Butler, of the Washington Park Advisory Council, and other community groups in Washington Park said they cut their teeth organizing during the Olympics and will be better able to cut a good deal for the neighborhood.

The 49-acre former Michael Reese Hospital site continues to hold the promise of something big for the south lakefront, once the right idea is pinned down. 

The city is paying off $91 million for purchasing the hospital and tearing it down in 2009, while consultants debate between Daley's idea for a tech park, proposals for a casino or some other idea that could live up to the $1 billion Olympic Village that was originally planned.

Portions of the plans for the Olympics could still resurface still, too.

Newsome can still imagine water taxis going up and down the south lakefront connecting Downtown with neighborhoods as far as South Shore.

“I could take that plan off the shelf and make it work, and it would be a boon,” Newsome said. “If the city had just followed through on a couple of those things, it would have been a boon to the South Side.”

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