The Olympic (shell) games

By ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE  |  September 25, 2009

“I’m not sure it’s realistic,” says Sanderson of the $4.8 billion price tag, “but if we spent just that, we’d be okay. Still, by most estimates we’d think about doubling that.”

“Also,” Sanderson continues, “the IOC will certainly come back to the city — [that’s] supposing Chicago wins — and say, ‘You know, we really don’t like this aspect of the stadium, or this aspect of the auditorium,’ and suggest a change of scope.” (Rather than an exception to the rule, introducing these changes of scope — a business term referring to a post-contractual shift in the magnitude of an agreed-upon project — is standard operational procedure with the Olympic Games.)

Explains Sanderson: “It’ll add money.”

Winning the games
Athletes are, of course, the front-and-center spectacle in each Olympic production. But athletes are rarely brought into the bid process. In fact, Bid Books are created by not-for-profit organizations made up of real-estate developers, former city employees, and public-relations personnel operating with the mission to bring the Games to town. Certainly, sports facilities and the glorious benefits they bring communities are well publicized — and famous athletes trotted out in support — but, for the most part, the name of the Games is money.

Convincing a city that funding new tracks, stadiums, and gymnasiums generates tourism, and therefore cash, is a full-time, two- or three-year job for bid committees, which charge themselves with conducting all relevant economic, community, employment, and environmental-impact assessments, each of which reveal — surprise! — that the Games will bring unprecedented prosperity to the area. They also conduct opinion polls, which claim nearly unanimous support for the Games. Upon these, they base all major urban planning for the next seven years and beyond: that’s the Olympic Bid Book.

Once submitted to the IOC, there’s little that can be done to change these plans. That’s tricky, since the public isn’t allowed to read them in advance. Even trickier, the money-losing aspect of an Olympic venture begins prior to when the Bid Book is placed in the IOC’s hands: shooting for host-city status costs all bidders — even the losers — around $100 million. That’s before a single brick is laid for a single 80,000-seat, $398 million stadium, like the one being proposed for Chicago’s Washington Park.

Enthusiasts counter, “It’s all private money!” And up until the host-city selection date in October, this is often correct. (True to form, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley originally promised that “not a dime” of taxpayer money would fund the Games. Three weeks ago, however, the Chicago City Council approved a blank check to cover financial losses — and, of course, the city had been committing public money to Olympics-related building projects and land use all along.)

But the city, and Chicago 2016, were overlooking the fact that the IOC didn’t want another privately funded Logo Olympics. (And not one local reporter called them on it.) Besides which, the IOC doesn’t make deals with private citizens: it makes deals with cities — and gets paid for them by broadcast networks. But it makes these deals in private. And it uses public funds. How much it will cost taxpayers becomes clear only well after that October date, if or when the mayor signs the host-city agreement.

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