Chicago Loses, Nerds Win

The real story behind the battle over the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The Chicago skyline 

On Friday in Copenhagen, the International Olympic Committee got Chicago’s best shot. President Obama flew in to stump for the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, joining Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. It wasn’t enough: Chicago lost out in the first round of voting, a shocking defeat for the odds-on favorite to win the 2016 games.

Back in the Windy City, not everybody is disappointed at Chicago’s loss. Despite more than 50 community meetings and a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign aimed at winning over the city through inescapable advertising, the city’s Olympics gambit started to lose favor as the IOC’s announcement approached. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll pegged public support at 47 percent, down from 61 percent in February.

Why the grumbling? The bid’s most visible opponents have spent years howling that the Olympics will breed graft and political corruption and bleed an already cash-strapped city dry. Chicago 2016’s supporters, by contrast, have argued that the Olympics will improve the city’s standing, create jobs, and boost local morale. The debate here wasn’t best understood as an honest disagreement over what’s best for Chicago. Rather, the rhetoric was indicative of a more fundamental clash: the eternal battle of jocks vs. nerds.

For two years, wonks like Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader and Tom Tresser of No Games Chicago have denounced Chicago’s Olympics gambit as poorly conceived and wasteful. These stalwarts of the city’s nerd opposition have couched their arguments in numbers, rules, and historical precedent, hoping to persuade the Games’ supporters through tireless skepticism.

Joravsky, Tresser, and their ilk have noted that the city of Chicago hasn’t completed a significant construction project on time or on budget in recent memory. On that account, the predicted $3.3 billion cost of the Games can’t be taken seriously. It doesn’t help that the city’s finances are a mess. Chicago’s budget deficit has soared from $200 million six months ago to an estimated $500 million next year, and the city has been laying people off and forcing municipal employees to take unpaid furloughs. The Second City’s recent parking meter boondoggle, in which it sold its meter stock to a private firm for $974 million less than its estimated value, shows it is incapable of executing a project on the scale of the Olympics, the nerds say.

The anti-Olympians also point out that the Olympics won’t bring nearly as much money to the region as Chicago 2016’s supporters allege. Research from an independent consulting firm estimates the Olympics would bring $4.4 billion in economic benefits to the area, much less than the $22 billion figure Mayor Daley has been promoting. Daley and the bid committee also promised Chicago taxpayers would not be on the hook for covering cost overruns. Yet during a trip to pitch the Chicago bid to the IOC in Switzerland this last June, he agreed to sign a contract guaranteeing the city will cover any losses incurred by the Olympics.

According to that recent Tribune/WGN poll, 84 percent of Chicagoans oppose the use of public funds for the Olympics. Yet nearly 50 percent of city residents support bringing the games to the Midwest.  The pro-Olympics crowd has been won over by the jocks of the Chicago 2016 bid committee, a group led by Aon Corp. founder and part-owner of the Chicago Bears Pat Ryan. * The jocks have offered a much simpler message than the nerds: The 2016 Olympics represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show the world how fantastic Chicago really is. The Summer Games, they argue, will boost tourism and improve the city’s global standing.

Though the Chicago 2016 committee has produced a detailed plan for the IOC that lays out the logistics of paying for and hosting the Games, its message to Chicagoans has emphasized emotion. A recent Huffington Post article by bid chairman Ryan has no numbers. Rather than explain the committee’s financial plan, Ryan simply calls it “strong” and cautions readers from throwing in with the naysayers who are too afraid of the scale of the Olympics to take them on. Translation: “Shut up, nerds. The Games are going to be awesome!”

The hard-to-refute fuzziness of concepts like “the world stage” and a city’s “global profile” resonate with large segments of the public. They also drive nerds into a rage by giving them no data to refute. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the two sides are talking past each other, appealing to their constituencies by speaking different languages.

We see this same jocks-vs.-nerds conflict play out every time a pro sports team threatens to skip town unless the taxpayers cough up money for a new stadium. The opposition to these arena grabs typically consists of good-government types who argue that the alleged economic impact of the new building is greatly inflated—and wouldn’t that money be better spent on education? The jocks play to municipal pride and the desire for the beloved local team to stay in town. And usually, though not always, the stadium gets built.

Who in America has the power and the bona fides to end this perpetual jock-nerd standoff? If anyone can do it, it’s President Obama. With his professed fondness for comic books and his prowess on the basketball court, he speaks both nerd and jock. And having agreed at the last minute to fly to Copenhagen to stump for the Games, he put himself at the center of the dysfunctional local shouting match.

In the end, even the so-called “biggest celebrity in the world” couldn’t win over the IOC. Now that he’s lost out in his bid to bring the Olympics to his adopted home town, he can turn to less intractable matters—health care reform, Afghanistan—than the country’s jock-nerd crisis.

AP video: The IOC’s announcement

Correction, Oct. 4, 2009: This piece originally stated that Chicago 2016 bid committee chairman Pat Ryan is the CEO of Aon Corp. He is the founder and former CEO of Aon. (Return to the corrected sentence.)