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October 5th, 2009:

Rant: Chicago’s Escape from Hell

I didn’t have time to say much the other day about my hometown’s narrow escape from Olympian Hell, and a few days’ wait has allowed me to spot some reasonable analysis by other people, especially Andrew Zimbalist, who I’m sure is often called a Sports Benefits Denier. I was a little surprised that our president would fly over there to lobby for his hometown–it seems a bad use of his time when health insurance reform is sinking out of sight–but that’s the sort of thing that presidents do, and I for one won’t hold it against him.

The nature of the ongoing spend-tax-money-on-sports argument is very nicely summarized over on Slate, in this piece by Brad Flora. It’s the same thing we hear again and again when billionaire sports team owners extort publicly financed stadiums from cities by threatening to move the team to a more gullible venue. The strategy virtually always works, though one wonders how or why.

Such deals never make financial sense for the cities and their taxpayers. It’s a strange ballet of spreadsheets vs. hypnotism: The policy wonks (I’m not sure they’re nerds as I define the term) come up with studies and hard numbers to debunk the Civic Pride and Benefits myths, while the jocks simply repeat statements of tribal emotion over and over until the electorate’s eyes glaze over and caves. It’s the same deal with the Olympics, and perhaps worse. Cities are expected to cough up billions of dollars to host an event lasting a few scant weeks, including the construction of substantial stadiums and athlete housing and lord knows what else, and then figure out how to make the facilities useful after the Games are over and everybody disperses to the four winds.

How can this ever make sense? It took Montreal thirty years to pay off the billions it cost to have the Games there in 1976. Few Olympic facilities get much use after the Games. Past Olympic facilities in some cities are crumbling wrecks behind barbed wire fences or already torn down in whole or in part and dumped in landfills. (That was actually Chicago’s plan from the outset.) The vast sums of money required are virtually always steered into politically friendly hands, and sheesh, guys, this is Chicago we’re talking about! (The sport they play best over there is racketball.) The crush of outsiders makes residents flee to the countryside, and in places where an ongoing tourist economy already exists, tourism falls to nothing before the Games and often remains depressed for years afterwards.

All for a mutated megatourney that has gone 180 from its original purpose: to transcend nationalism and glorify the efforts of individual athletes. Instead, we now have a global festival of flag-flavored tribalistic poo-flinging that takes huge advantage of the dazzling young athletes, who work basically for free while insiders and organizers pocket whatever money comes in.

I know, I know, I always come out against sports, heh. Guilty, and unrepentant. Still, not a single person I know in Chicago (and I know lots) came out for the Games, and if anybody was defending them before, I suspect they’re being very quiet now.

My view is pretty simple: The Olympics have long been too big an event to bounce around the world as though they were a spelling bee. They need to go back to Greece and stay there forever. What we used to spend on building whole cities every four years to host the Games, we should now parcel out as prize money to the athletes, so that they can at least get a college education against the (strong) possibility that there isn’t much money in professional biathalon once the last echoes of Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream” fade to silence.