Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Legacy and the Olympics

As I begin to write this there are two days until the International Olympic Committee makes its choice for the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. For the first time in my life I live in a city that is in contention to host the Games and like most people in this town, I am filled with excitement, and not a little ambivalence.

Putting myself on the line I'll go on record right now and say that Madrid is not going to be the one as the 2012 Olympics will be in London and the I.O.C. is loathe to have consecutive Games on the same continent. The same will probably be the problem for Tokyo as the 2008 games were in Beijing and the I.O.C. likes to spread the wealth around, at least among four continents so far. My money, if I had any right now, would be on Rio as the Games have never taken place in South America. And what Games they would be! But Rio has its problems too so it looks like Chicago and Rio are running neck and neck. We'll know in less than 48 hours.

I'm sure there are detractors in every city that tries to get the Olympics and Chicago certainly is no exception. The criticisms run from the mundane, (it would tie up traffic for two weeks), to doubts about whether we can really pull it off and at what cost.

I stated my support a few months ago on this blog for the effort to bring the Olympics to Chicago and I stand by that. There are good reasons not to bring the Games here, most notably the vast expense and the possible loss or alteration of significant buildings and parks. I believe however that there are simply more good reasons in favor. In the long run, and it may in fact be the VERY long run, the benefits will simply outweigh the costs.

Many of the criticisms center around Mayor Richard M. Daley. While the mayor enjoys success at the polls that no one, not even his father had, he has become the symbol for all that is wrong with city government. Admittedly Daley has exercised heavy handed authoritarian rule over the city, the most outrageous example being the destruction of Meigs Field by sending bulldozers to tear up the runway in the middle of the night. Ultimately however the mayor proved to be right on that issue, the city benefits far more by having park land along the lakefront than an airport used primarily by private planes. Charges of corruption coming out of the mayor's office (but not the mayor himself), and other misguided adventures, most recently the bungled out-sourcing of city controlled revenue sources like the Skyway and parking meters have certainly tarnished the mayor's administration.

So it's no small wonder that the mayor's almost single minded effort to pursue the Games, has appeared to many to be "Ritchie's folly". Bringing the Olympics to Chicago is really the mayor's attempt to secure his legacy, or so the argument goes.

Well what politician is not concerned about his legacy? Any public figure's legacy is indelibly tied to his or her successes and failures. If Mayor Daley leaves the city in better shape than he found it, then his legacy will be intact. And who but the most cynical among us would have a problem with that?

His vision may not be to everyone's liking but no one for a minute has ever questioned Mayor Daley's love of his city. Almost to a fault the mayor has been Chicago's greatest civic booster, never afraid to put his city in the same league with the great cities of the world.

Personally I have to admit that I cringe whenever I hear the term "world class city". It seems like a meaningless, hype-filled expression spouted by provincial bumpkins with a serious inferiority complex. But our mayor truly believes in Chicago, the world class city. And he is banking on the possibility that he may be right.

Look at the competition. Madrid with over a millennium of history, is the capital of the Spanish speaking world, a center of culture, government, and commerce. Consider Tokyo, one of the great metropolises of the world, a "command center" of the world's economy. And of course there is Rio de Janeiro, unquestionably one of the most beautiful and glamorous cities in the world. While it unquestionably applies to all three, I strongly suspect that "world class city" is seldom uttered in those cities, in whatever form it takes in Portuguese, Spanish, or Japanese.

In Chicago we rightfully extol the physical beauty our lakefront and our architecture. We are the transportation hub of the United States. The Chicago's Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange are strong engines in our nation's economy. Many of our cultural institutions are second to none. Yet to this day traveling around the world, the first thing people say when you tell them you're from Chicago is "Gangsters!, rat a tat tat!, Al Capone!"

A local talk radio host recently asked the question, "Have you ever visited a city because they at one time hosted the Olympics?" Of course the question was pointed and everyone who called in answered no. A more reasonable question would have been, "has your image of a particular city changed because they hosted the Olympics?"

I would have to say that with the exception of Atlanta, and Athens, two cities I had already visited, I learned a great deal about all the cities that have hosted the Games in my lifetime. While Sydney, Barcelona, Seoul, Turin and Sarajevo to name a few were already on my map, my image of those places was definitely shaped by the Olympics. Not to mention the cities that I probably would have never heard of had it not been for the Olympics: Albertville and Grenoble, France, Nagano and Sapporo, Japan, Innsbruck, Austria, even Lake Placid, New York.

The Olympics have replaced World's Fairs as the single greatest showcase for a city to the rest of the world. Billions of people will be tuned in to the Games and it seems to be a no brainer that the value of that kind of publicity as far as developing international awareness, would be far greater than the simple expense of putting on the Games.

Mayor Daley understands this as do the Governor, the President, the First Lady and an entire slew of public and private figures who are in Copenhagen right now to lobby the effort.

Here at home nay sayers are dialing up their rhetoric in these final hours before the decision. Maybe their disdain comes from the fact that they don't care much for the Olympics themselves or that the boundaries their world end at the Indiana and Wisconsin borders. The bean counters and small thinkers among us have been the loudest in their criticisms and no doubt we'll be hearing a great deal from them after the decision is made around noon Chicago time on Friday, regardless of the outcome. "Now we're in for it!" they'll say if we get the Games, or "Well we sure wasted a bunch of money trying to get this thing" if we don't.

As far as I'm concerned, this has been a win/win situation for the city. Regardless of the outcome, Chicago has benefited from this endeavor in terms of exposure and securing its place on the world's stage. Perhaps, as an article I sited in an earlier post suggested, any city that bids for the Olympics benefits greatly, even more so if it is not the ultimate winner.

Like everyone else in this city, I eagerly await the news on Friday morning. Deep down I really hope we win, I think it would be a terrific experience and opportunity, especially for my children and their peers all over the city.

Chicago is a proud city with many mottos, "The City of Big Shoulders" and "The I Will City" are two of them.

As far as I know, "No, thank you" is not.

Win or lose I can summarize my feeling in four words:

Good job Mr. Mayor.

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