The big news in Chicago this past weekend was that our fair city bested Los Angeles to represent the United States in bidding for the 2016 Summer Olympics with Tokyo and Rio De Jianero probably being the main opponents. Winning the Olympics, which won’t be decided until 2009, certainly won’t be a slam dunk, particularly with the fact of Rio bringing the prospect of the first Games ever being held in South America. That being said, Chicago is well-positioned since Brazil might be putting more resources into a probable hosting of the 2014 World Cup while Tokyo will be at a disadvantage with the close proximity in geography and time to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Also, the U.S. television broadcast rights are the single largest revenue source for the Olympics and just happen to be up for bid starting in 2016 – something tells me that NBC or another network would pay a hefty premium if the games don’t need to be shown on tape delay in prime time.
There are certainly a number of horror stories that suggest that losing cities often end up winners compared to the hosting cities, ranging from financial problems (Montreal taking nearly three decades to pay off its debt for the 1976 Olympics) to terrorism (Munich in 1972 and Atlanta in 1996). In Chicago, the talk also naturally turns to traffic problems, which are bad enough without the additional crush of hundreds of thousands of extra visitors.
Still, for all of these potential pitfalls, I believe that being able to hold the Olympics would be a fantastic opportunity for the City of Chicago and could finally change the perception of our city once and for all. Anyone that loves urban environments (I’m not talking about the yokels that complain about how there are too many people and a lack of hunting venues) and has visited Chicago knows that it is on par with any other large city in the world in terms of architecture, culture, economic strength, and vibrant public spaces. For all of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s crazy power trips, he has been relentless in transforming a previously gritty town into a glimmering city with a gorgeous lakefront. Unfortunately, it continues to amaze me in dealing with people that haven’t visited Chicago from both coasts of the United States and foreign countries that they perceive the city being more like Detroit or Cleveland – as in a declining, industrial-based, boring, and unsophisticated Midwestern town (I’m not trying to pile on our Michigan and Ohio neighbors, but that’s just the global perception). I can understand the fascination with New York, which is a world center on so many different levels, but it continues to boggle my mind that places such as Boston and San Francisco, while certainly being beautiful cities, seem to be romanticized in the general public mindset in comparison to Chicago even though I consider the Windy City to have a more energetic and vibrant urban atmosphere than those two towns (and Boston definitely doesn’t have better weather).
What I hope an Olympics would do for Chicago is to provide the city the widest platform to showcase its assets and give it a final push to attain the international stature that it has deserved for a long time. The key here is that I don’t believe that Chicago has much to prove, unlike, say, Atlanta did in 1996. Chicago’s world-class urban infrastructure is already in place, so it just needs the attention in a world that largely perceives the space in between New York and Los Angeles as flyover country. The best model of this is Barcelona, which was similarly perceived as an old industrial town prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics even though it had already gone through an urban renaissance. For those that attended those games, Barcelona completely blew them away with its sophistication and beauty to the point where, as opposed to being a largely ignored stepchild to Madrid, it is now a must-see for all visitors to Spain. My hope for Chicago if it gets the opportunity to host the Olympics is that the city can leverage the games to transform its international image for way beyond 2016.
(Image from Repeat – Writings on Architecture)