Chicago 2016? Why Obama's wrong to boost Olympic bid

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Recently Barack Obama criticized planned protests at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh because, as he knew from his Chicago days, "focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference and ... having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference."

Well, on September 29 at Chicago's City Hall a protest too place around a "concrete, local, immediate issue," putting the protesters across the barricades from Barack and Michelle Obama as well as the all-powerful Democratic political machine of the city. The issue is the 2016 Olympic bid and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's political pact with the Obamas to see the Games come to the Windy City. Mayor Daley, rocking a 35 per cent approval rating, says that the Games would be "a huge boost to our economy, raising it to a new level. The Games will help us recover sooner from the recession that still grips our nation and enable us to better compete in the global economy."

There is only one problem with this argument: the history of the Olympic Games almost without exception brands it as a lie.

In fact, the very idea that Chicago could be the setting for the Olympics could have been hatched by Jon Stewart for a four-year supply of comedic fodder. To greater or lesser degrees, the Olympics bring gentrification, graft and police violence wherever they nest. Even without the Olympic Games, Chicago has been ground zero in the past decade for the destruction of public housing (gentrification), political corruption (it ain't just Blagojevich; I can't remember the last Illinois governor who didn't end up behind bars) and police violence (the death row torture scandals). Bringing the Olympics to this town would be like sending a gift basket filled with chardonnay to the Betty Ford Clinic: overconsumption followed by disaster.

It's also difficult for Chicago residents to see how this will help their pocketbooks, given that Daley pledged to the International Olympic Committee that any cost overruns would be covered by taxpayers.

This is why a staggering 84 per cent of the city opposes bringing the Games to Chicago.

The Obamas, former Chicago residents, should be standing with their city. Instead, Michelle Obama is preparing a presentation for the International Olympic Committee's decision-making meeting in Copenhagen on October 2. And amid a roiling national debate on healthcare, President Obama may also be there to join his wife in the effort. As No Games Chicago Organizer Tom Tresser said to me, "Why would Obama, who has so far escaped the taint of Chicago politics, connect himself to the mayor's obsession? If we get the Games, and then the scandals start unfolding--they will be 'Obama's Games' and 'Obama's folly' just as much as the mayor will be saddled with the blame.... Why would the president turn his back on 84 per cent of the city that gave him his start in civic life?"

But we shouldn't be surprised at this point that Obama is tin-eared to the concerns of Chicago residents. As Paul Krugman wrote September 20 on the banker bonuses, "the administration has suffered more than it seems to realize from the perception that it's giving taxpayers' hard-earned money away to Wall Street."

Shoveling taxpayers' money into the Olympic maw is no better, especially in these tough times. The people of Chicago are feeling this acutely, and it's why they are going out to protest against the will of a ruthless political machine and a popular president.

No Games Chicago organizer Alison McKenna said, "I oppose the Olympics coming to Chicago because instead of putting money toward what people really need, money will be funneled to real estate developers who will be tearing down Washington Park and other important community resources. I oppose the Olympics coming to Chicago because the nonprofit child-welfare agency that I work for had to sustain budget cuts and layoffs, while Chicago has spent $48.2 million on the 2016 Olympic bid, as of July 2009."

At this point in history, the right wing is shamelessly adopting populist rhetoric and the power of protest to sell an agenda of racism and fear wrapped in taxpayer protection. The left looks immobilized and fears that its man in Washington will be offended if it raises more than a peep (the LGBT community being a welcome exception to this dynamic). The protest on September 29 will be an ideal opportunity to offer a pole of attraction on the left for people furious at corporate greed amid a recession. Glenn Beck and Ron Paul cannot become the loudest voices against corporate greed.

There is nothing "abstract" about what the Olympics will do to Chicago. Obama likes to talk about the political tenacity of the Chicago Way. Olympic opponents will need to bring their version of the "Chicago Way" to City Hall.


Dave Zirin is the author of A People's History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing This article originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here with permission. 

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