- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

CHICAGO | Excitement is at fever pitch ahead of Friday’s announcement of where the 2016 Olympic Summer Games will be played, but not everyone in the Windy City is rooting for the home side.

With Chicago and Rio de Janeiro considered front-runners to get the nod at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen, more than a few spoilsports, fearing the games would bring economic ruin, are going so far as to root for the other contenders, which also include Madrid and Tokyo.

Plenty of Chicagoans are still on board with the city’s bid. A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed 47 percent in favor and 45 percent against. More importantly, President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and TV host Oprah Winfrey have made their way to Copenhagen to boost their hometown’s chances.

Some are even talking about adding a fifth star to the city’s flag if the bid is successful. The four existing stars represent significant events in Chicago’s history such as the 1893 and 1933-34 world’s fairs.

Nonetheless, many Chicagoans say that hosting the games could spell disaster for the city. Groups standing in opposition to the bid, such as Chicagoans for Rio 2016 and No Games Chicago, have run ads, held demonstrations and made trips to Copenhagen to voice their concerns about how the games would affect the city’s - and even the nation’s - pocketbooks.

“The city is in bad financial shape, the state is in bad shape, and last I checked the federal government wasn’t doing very well either,” said Rachel Goodstein, a member of No Games Chicago.

“We have economic problems. I’m not sure that it is appropriate for the federal government to make a priority to fixing up the Chicago transportation system just to have the Olympics. If I were a taxpayer in some other hard-pressed part of the country, I’d write my congressman and say, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

A main concern among critics is financial. While the Chicago 2016 committee says the estimated $4.8 billion cost to host the games will be paid without taxpayer money, not everyone is convinced that is a realistic plan. Critics point out that it took Montreal 30 years to pay off debt it accrued as host of the 1976 games, and Athens has been left with abandoned Olympic facilities.

Past and future Olympic-woe stories aside, the Chicago 2016 committee is convinced the funding plan is solid.

“This is a privately funded games in Chicago as opposed to a city of Chicago-financed games,” said Doug Arnot, senior vice president of venues, planning and operations for the Chicago 2016 committee.

“We’ve gone to extraordinary measures to understand the scope of each one of the construction projects. We’ve had the best experts in the U.S. develop the plans. We’ve had significant cost reviews.

“The nature of our construction is such that it does not require enormous projects such as that you’ve seen in other games. This approach will allow us to keep us in budget and will allow us to have a games that will be economically and environmentally sustainable.”

The Chicago 2016 committee boasts that the Olympic Games would leave a lasting legacy because they would offer the city a chance to “accelerate the sustainable redevelopment of Chicago’s South and West sides - two of the city’s key long-term urban-renewal priorities.”

Skeptics say the games will be used to make changes in a far less benevolent manner.

“I have concerns about what will happen to homeowners and renters who live in buildings around Douglas and Washington parks, which are areas where they plan on building the Olympic facilities,” Ms. Goodstein said.

“I am concerned about the residents being displaced one way or another by the Olympics. In some areas, it’s a plan for gentrification. It’s a land grab, which isn’t really that surprising to me.”

Critics of the Chicago bid are also concerned about what will become of the sporting and housing facilities that are erected. When naysayers point to the vacant facilities haunting former host cities, backers of the bid counter with their plans for building temporary sporting facilities that can be broken down once the games are over.

“One of the strengths of our plan is that we started with what the facility will be in 2017, not just 2016,” Mr. Arnot said. “The plan will provide great new sports facilities, reasonably sized for community and sports use post-games, and we will completely remove the facilities for which we do not have a reasonable post-games use.”

Ms. Goodstein said she remains skeptical about the way facilities will be handled because of similar promises that the city has not kept. The Charter One Pavilion concert facility at Northerly Island, the former site of Meigs Field, was billed by the city as temporary, but has yet to be taken down since it was erected in 2005, she said.

Transportation is another major area of concern. For years, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has been struggling with severe budget problems, while also dealing with the need for serious upgrades. In recent weeks, two CTA board members abandoned ship, leaving the transportation authority in even greater disarray.

Plans in the Chicago 2016 bid call for the creation of driving lanes designated solely for Olympic athletes and staff. Some argue that such a lane is an impossibility, prompting critics to say it’s proof that the 2016 Olympics will mean only congestion and strife for Chicago’s commuters. Ms. Goodstein says the lack of clearly outlined plans for financing the CTA’s Olympic plans and upgrades is proof that the city is ill-prepared to handle the 2016 Olympic Games.

“They didn’t put it in their plan or budget because they thought it was going to come as magic money,” she said. “That’s bad planning. If the Chicago 2016 committee wants to point at Brazil and say that city’s budget is bigger, they have to realize it’s because the Rio budget is honest. It includes infrastructure.

“By the way, Mayor [Richard] Daley says no taxpayer money will be used for the Chicago 2016 Games, but federal money is still tax money.”

As with any major event that attracts large crowds, security is a concern. Mr. Arnot noted that the United States hosted an Olympic Games after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and cites the success of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games as proof that an American city such as Chicago can be prepared for the security threats that come with hosting the Olympics. Ms. Goodstein disagrees.

“The security plan is loosey-goosey and calls for close to a police state, if need be, in the areas surrounding the Olympic sites,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with that for two weeks or a month during the games, let alone for how long it takes to complete these construction sites.

“And security is only one page long in the bid; that should be a concern to a lot of people. There ought to be a real plan that people can see; and it should be longer than one page.”

The Chicago 2016 team in Copenhagen is confident about the city’s chances of winning the bid, said Mr. Arnot, but not overly so. Despite the fact that Around the Rings, an organization known for its analysis of Olympic bids, chose Rio de Janeiro as the likely winner over Chicago by only one point, he says all four cities are still strong contenders to win.

Rio de Janeiro is no rookie to the Olympic bid game. The Brazilian city, which is hoping to bring the games to South America for the first time, has been a top contender twice before. The people at No Games Chicago say the 2016 games should go to the city for that very reason.

“Maybe it takes awhile to create a good plan,” Ms. Goodstein said. “Rio has been working on it longer, and maybe they have the plan perfected. Maybe Chicago can learn from it and see that there could be an even better plan for the city if they allow residents to have a voice in the process.

“The games are not the solution to what ails Chicago, and I don’t think having a new star on the flag is the be all, end all for the city.”

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