|Rendering of Chicago in 2016, had the Olympics been awarded to the city. Ah, what could have been. Source: Chicago Bid Book via chicago.curbed.com|
“We have become very concerned,” John Coates told the Australian Associated Press. “And this is against a city that’s got social issues that also have to be addressed; a country that’s also trying to deal with the FIFA World Cup coming up in a few months.”
And those social issues he refers to? Here’s the Atlantic Cities account of recent events there:
“Clashes last week between favela residents and police in Rio de Janeiro led to flaming barricades, the partial shutdown of the iconic Copacabana neighborhood, and at least one shooting victim. Less than six weeks from the start of the World Cup, Rio and its slums appear to be teetering on the brink of chaos.
Favela residents say they’re protesting human rights violations on the part of police forces. Meanwhile, drug dealers are regaining territory amid the chaos, and authorities are leaning on military reinforcements to keep order.”
Here’s hoping that things can turn around in Rio and that the city can have a safe and successful 2014 World Cup (slated to start in six weeks, and also plagued with delays) as well as 2016 Olympics. But this also begs the question — where would Chicago be today had it won the bid in 2009?
I should note by starting that I was a supporter of Chicago getting the Games at that time, so my perceptions of what-could-have-been may be far rosier than someone who was not a supporter. And trust me: not everyone in Chicago was a supporter of the Olympic bid. A Chicago Tribune poll conducted in August 2009 said 47% of respondents supported the bid, while 45% were against it. Dissent came largely from the South Side, where the Olympic Village and many venues for the Games were proposed as an economic development stimulus for the area.
This is purely my speculation, but I see four things that would be quite evident today had Chicago been awarded the 2016 Olympics:
No construction delays or concerns. The Chicago bid relied heavily on existing facilities for Olympic venues. Professional sports venues like Soldier Field, the United Center, Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular Field and Toyota Park, as well as other sites like Allstate Arena, Sears Centre, and sports venues at virtually every college location in Chicago were going to be employed for the Games. The key missing piece, however, was an appropriate site for track and field events and the Opening and Closing ceremonies. Chicago would’ve constructed an 80,000-seat temporary stadium in Washington Park on the city’s South Side. The stadium would’ve been pared down to a 10,000-seat multipurpose venue after the Olympics. An image of the stadium from the Chicago Bid Book:
Chicago was presumed to have a strong facilities advantage over its competition from Madrid, Tokyo and Rio.
Commercial and residential “boomlet” on the Chicago lakefront. This is a little harder to speculate on, in part because the Olympic selection came in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But there is a sense that the Olympics would have provided a boost to investment from the South Loop southward to Hyde Park. The Olympic Village was proposed for the former Michael Reese Hospital site near 31st Street and the lakefront, in the Bronzeville neighborhood, and it would’ve been converted to residential uses after the Games. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Games would have drawn new attention to an often-neglected part of the city, and investment would’ve shot up accordingly.
The “Global City” bat-signal. Chicago is often viewed by those who are not from here as being on the cusp of global city status but not quite there (best case), or being the most livable of generally unlivable Rust Belt cities (worst case). I think the Olympics would have served as a strong signal to the international community that Chicago was indeed ready to be a very visible international player, and would’ve begun to attract international investment to a far greater extent than it does today. That would mean more international businesses attracted to Chicago’s air and rail connectivity to the interior of the nation, and more corporate headquarters moving here — perhaps U.S.-based corporations relocating from more expensive coastal locations, or international corporations seeking to move North American headquarters to a more central location. Elite educational institutions like Northwestern and the University of Chicago would be viewed even more highly, and other institutions would have received a boost. Chicago would have gotten a significant profile boost akin to what Los Angeles (1984), Barcelona (1992) and Sydney (2000) received. (Side note: I often think Atlanta squandered its chance to raise its profile with the ’96 Games. Rembert Browne at Grantland seems to agree.)
The City’s crime issues would be a bigger national topic of discussion. Sadly, I don’t think the Olympics would have done anything to stem the violence epidemic that plagues parts of the city today, and even though it does garner lots of national attention now, it would have been even moreso if the Olympics were headed here. In fact, with a President not only from Chicago, but from the very neighborhood where the Games would’ve occurred, I think Chicago violent crime would’ve become an issue in the 2014 midterm elections because it would have been laid at the feet of President Obama.
So much political, corporate and philanthropic money and energy was thrown at this effort that I think Chicago still hasn’t fully recovered from it. For 2 1/2 years prior to the October 2009 announcement, this effort was Chicago’s raison d’etre. It was to be the preeminent achievement of Mayor Richard M. Daley. But five years after that stunning vote, Chicago is still trying to sort out what it is, and where to go.