The Olympic (shell) games

By ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE  |  September 25, 2009

As closely as Boston officials are surely watching the Chicago bid, Bostonians concerned about their economic future should be, too: quiet chatter about bringing a mega-sports event to town can swiftly result in backroom deals that commit public land, services, and funds to a fancy two-week-long sports party that makes an AIG executive retreat seem relatively thrifty. You might look up one day not too far in the future to find yourself battling both City Hall and every jock in town for rights to your city.

Chicago 2009
At least that’s how it’s going down in Chicago as the city prepares for the October 2 decision. The process kicked off in earnest three years ago, after Mayor Daley saw how well the 2006 Chicago Gay Games went over. Now the bid is backed by Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan. (One of the city’s selling points is that, because the Games have never been held on the continent of Africa, it should go to a city with a large population of blacks. For real.) The not-for-profit bid committee Chicago 2016 claims an 83-percent approval rating among citizens. Weirdly, no externally conducted polls can duplicate these numbers, more often finding disapproval ratings for publicly funded Games of 84 percent. (A September 2 Chicago Tribune poll saw that even a mandate was lacking; the grand total of citizens approving of hosting the Games, even if privately funded, was only 47 percent.)

Historically, mega-sports events have not been about new sports facilities — or even sports. In 776 BC, when Olympic competition was limited to a single race (about 200 meters) and gender (male), it was held as a religious celebration of Zeus. In 393 AD, the Games were even abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius I as a body for pagan idolatry and (sound familiar?) rampant corruption. In 1894, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin revived the concept and created the IOC, and the Games have since grown in scope and popularity, in part thanks to the invention of modern media, which has increased both viewership and sponsorship. In the ’80s, when the IOC started making serious money from sales of broadcast rights, questions about that money started to arise. By 1998, when members of the IOC acknowledged they had taken bribes in exchange for selecting certain host cities, many believed that the Olympics were rigged from the start.

To cope with the scandal, the IOC turned to powerful public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton. The renowned firm — the past work of which includes inventing the Citizens for a Free Kuwait/babies-ripped-from-incubators story that helped drive the US to launch the first Gulf War — keeps most of its clients secret, for obvious reasons. The IOC put them on a retainer of $75,000 per month in June of 1999, and they’ve popped up to lead successful bid campaigns, including Beijing 2008 and London 2012, since.

Now the firm manages the Chicago 2016 bid. At least, that’s the Hill & Knowlton connection that’s on the record. One inside source informs me that about half the Chicago bid committee are current Hill & Knowlton staffers, although this is not made evident on the organization’s Web site. This is significant because the committee, filled with big business and cultural luminaries, has assigned itself the task of mediating both the needs of the city and those of the Olympic movement — aiming, of course, for a profitable Olympiad that keeps harm to locals (a/k/a bad press) under limits. But if the integrity of that committee is further tested — beyond, of course, represented business’s immediate interests — by paychecks from the firm with a close relationship with the IOC, it puts the future of Chicago in distinctly untrustworthy hands.

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