Friday, October 2, 2009

First the Cubs, now the Olympics

I'm going to admit upfront that I love the Olympics. The idea of athletes from all countries and all sports getting together and competing is easily over-sentimentalized, I know, and the problems of the world don't go away for 17 days every four years, but it still represents an ideal that is good and noble. Maybe it's become cluttered with commercialization and politics and greed and all the other human sins, but there remains a purity behind the intent that I appreciate and admire.

Perhaps that's why I, while leaning toward wanting the Games in my home city of Chicago, retained some very real ambivalence about the whole thing. The politics of Chicago and Illinois is so corrupt, so subject to cronyism and cheating, that I feared, I suppose, that the Olympics would be tainted by the sweetheart deals, the opportunities of resource diversion to cronies of Mayor Daley, the ram-it-through mentality that would make the actual people of Chicago an afterthought. still would have been really cool to see the Olympics come to Chicago, to be here for this oft-wonderful city to be highlighted on the world stage. Perhaps Bob Costas could do his show overlooking Daley Plaza with a big picture of Da Mare over his shoulder (having set the precedent of honoring local dictators by allowing us to spend 17 days appreciating the lovely mass murderer Chairman Mao).

Alas, it is not to be. Chicago got blown away in the first round of a competition that everyone in the city figured was in the bag. The media coverage was laughable, of course, including Olympics "experts" who, before the vote, confidently told us all the reasons Chicago was the front-runner, then did a 180 after the vote and confidently told us about the many flaws in the plan.

[To offer a minority-in-Chicago opinion: The voting results tell me that Chicago had no chance. Had we squeaked by Tokyo in the first round, I doubt things would have gotten any better. One has to suppose that the Asian bloc would have gone to Chicago instead of Rio, and I know no reason to think that would have been a lock.]

But here's the most important flaw, in my eyes. Chicago is simply not perceived as a world-class city by, well, anyone who doesn't live in Chicago. I wish it were true, certainly, because I love a lot of things about this town, but it simply isn't, and all the boosterism in the world isn't going to change that.

Look at a Chicago Tribune editorial from this past Monday:
No, Chicago doesn't need the Olympics. This is already a world-class city. Has been for decades. During its rich history, Chicago has scrapped its path to world-class stature in manufacturing, finance, retail, professional sports, academia -- on it goes. An Olympiad would be wonderful, but certainly isn't essential.
The paper cites five areas in which Chicago is world-class.

Manufacturing - largely gone to cheaper places in the country and out, and most of the headquarters of those companies have left for greener pastures.

Finance - guess the largest bank headquartered in Chicago. Go ahead, I'll wait. That's right, it's the Northern Trust, an institution that exists primarily to manage the assets of rich people. It has no place in the nation's top banks.

Retail - we need only look at the replacement of Marshall Field's with Macy's, but we can also walk down Michigan Avenue and see all the national chains to understand that retailing is no longer a primary industry.

Professional sports - even if we grant that field an influence it doesn't have, it's hard to make a case that we're any better at that than other world cities.

Academia - the tendency to overrate Northwestern, which comes from looking around newsrooms and seeing all the Northwestern grads, is irritating enough. When one looks at the deplorable condition of the once-proud economics faculty of the U of Chicago, one gets a sense that perhaps all is not rosy on the local quads.

The "on it goes" might include financial markets, but the Board of Trade and its ilk are rapidly moving to T1 and T3 lines coming in from all over the world, so they aren't the source of employment they once were. It might include tourism and conventions, but a lot of that business is being lost to cities with more to offer in the way of entertainment and food (it seems clear that any industry with a strong Asian presence is going to put their conventions in Seattle, San Francisco, or Vegas; Europe, New York or Orlando).

What Chicago has not done is establish any particular presence in anything with a future, in technology or bioengineering or alternative energy. That we aren't Detroit stems mainly from bigger size and greater diversity of industry, but it's not difficult to see us following that path eventually.

And Mayor Daley knows this, which is why he pushes tourism and splashy parks and big events, because those are the only ways he can think of to extract money from other places to prop up an obviously unsupportable infrastructure.

I hate to write this, hate to believe it, but it's hard for me to see a great future for Chicago. Getting the Olympics might have delayed the day of reckoning, but it wouldn't have changed the fundamentals. Not getting them, I don't know what's going to happen. But, at some point, the boosters and hucksters are going to have to realize that a very different Chicago is coming down the pike, and we're better off planning for that than we are trying to hit the big home run to "put us back on the map."


Greg Glockner said...

Meh. I lived through the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and it wasn't worth the hype. And I'm not making the trek north to Vancouver in the winter, even though I'm a short drive away. Let Rio have 'em. If it weren't for the lousy coverage on NBC, it would be better to watch on TV. (At least I can watch CBC coverage in Seattle).

2Truthy said...

Who says the Second City is not world-class? You left out some of Chicago's finest who continue to leave their indelible footprint on the city's unique cultural brand:

-Rahm Emanuel
-The youth of Fenger HS
-Oprah's heft (hey, who else has the clout to shut down the Magnificent Mile?)
-the former POTUS pastor
-the POTUS himself (okay, he's 'adopted' the city but so what)
- and so, so many more!

Still, I must say despite the rejection, this Chicago native is nevertheless disappointed. Perhaps it is for the better. Host towns for the Olympics lose money, and Chicago's roads and bridges could use some tuning up, yes?

Yes, Androcass, I also have to agree that "a very different Chicago is coming down the pike" as we watch it get sold off to the highest bidders w/o any cultural stakes in our history, our unique towns and suburbs - each with their distinct (and some not always so salient) characters.

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