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Opinions Mixed Over Chicago's Bid to Host '16 Games

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

CHICAGO, Oct. 1 -- A huge banner stretches nearly the length of the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. It shows a butterfly swimmer in mid-stroke. He is reaching outward, accompanied by a single word: Imagine.

Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) and the team of stars seeking to host the 2016 Summer Olympics like to imagine spotlights and glory. If the International Olympic Committee awards them the Games on Friday, they foresee pageantry, prestige and income for their city.

An Olympic stadium would rise on the South Side. Strong turbines would churn Lake Michigan's calm waters into a whitewater kayaking course. Public transportation would improve, and developers would sink $1 billion into an Olympic village in a neighborhood that needs a boost.

"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Daley declared in a news conference before leaving for Copenhagen, where the IOC will hear Friday from President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama before deciding among Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.

Speaking at a party in Denmark, Michelle Obama said she thinks of the example that the Olympics -- and Olympians -- could set for children "who can never dream of being that close to such power and opportunity."

But while Chicago's bid may have united the city's political and business elite, it has left many ordinary Chicagoans skeptical.

Fewer than half of Chicago residents in a recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll said they want the city to host the Olympics. And 75 percent opposed a guarantee -- later approved 49 to 0 by the city council -- to cover shortfalls with tax dollars if the Games were to go over budget.

The Chicago bid has been in the works for more than three years, mapped out by a host committee and fueled by tens of millions of dollars in private donations and the relentless promotion of city notables.

"From my very first meeting, I thought what an extraordinary coup for Chicago to host the most important sporting event in the world," said Valerie Jarrett, the committee vice chair before she joined the White House as an adviser to Obama. "To the committee's credit, we really were very diligent in analyzing the pros and cons."

In 2007, Chicago beat out Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco to become the U.S. contender. Last year, an IOC committee ranked Chicago third among the four finalists.

The Chicago 2016 committee estimates the city could host the Games for about $4.8 billion and contends that taxpayer contributions would be minimal. Many of the facilities already exist, while some competitions would be held in temporary structures.

Civic leaders, ever touchy about Chicago's profile as a flyover city -- the local comedy club is called "Second City" for a reason -- insist the Olympics would do wonders, translating into jobs as the country emerges from recession.

"Look at what it did to Barcelona," Daley said in an interview in windswept Washington Park, where the Olympic stadium would be built. "Before, no one really knew Barcelona. Look what it's done for Atlanta. Tremendous global marketing."

Allen Sanderson, a University of Chicago sports economist, is skeptical of numbers distributed by Daley that project $22.5 billion in Olympics-connected economic development for Illinois stretching 11 years.

"It's nowhere near $22 billion. I think the truth is more likely to be somewhere between zero and $5 billion," said Sanderson, who is also dubious about the host committee's estimate of $4.8 billion in costs. He noted huge cost overruns in the construction of Millennium Park and a city expressway.

"If we get the bid and you take the $5 billion and put it in a cookie jar and say, 'That's it,' the city will be fine," Sanderson said. "We can break even if we only spend $5 billion, but once you say the cookie jar doesn't have a bottom, then you get into trouble."

A steadfast opponent of the Chicago Olympic bid sees trouble no matter what.

"If Chicago is awarded the 2016 Olympic Games, corruption, cronyism, cost overruns and displacement are guaranteed," Bob Quellos, organizer of No Games Chicago, wrote this week to Obama, urging him to cancel his trip to Denmark.

Obama's presence in Copenhagen, eagerly sought by Daley and the host committee, links him to the mayor's assurances that the Olympics will be more boon than bane.

That's fine with the president. He likes Chicago's chances, even with Rio pitching the fact that the Olympics have never been held in South America.

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.

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