Friday, October 2, 2009

Better Chi-Town than Hogtown

If you haven't already heard, let me be the first one to tell you that Chicago will not be hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The city has been eliminated in the first round of voting, under a sky that had started out blue but had over the course of the morning turned to a fluffy grey.

I was there in Daley Plaza with what must have been at least ten thousand people crammed into that patch of concrete in the shadow of the Daley Center, watching the live feed of the International Olympic Committee voting ceremony streamed live from Copenhagen over the jumbotron. When the representative announced Chicago had been eliminated, the tenterhook silence of the crowd was shattered by gasps, than an angry rumbling, like an 'L' train squealing through the Loop.

This was the eventuality no one seriously expected. One of the primary expectations was that it would come down to a close race between Chicago and Rio de Janiero, and at that point there wouldn't have been the same level of disappointment; Rio would've run a good race and deserved its kudos and Games. From where I stood in Daley Plaza, Chicago's first-round elimination struck the crowd more like a dagger in the back. As I was wearing one of the free orange "Chicago 2016" T-shirts they'd been giving out earlier, a few people stopped me on the street to confirm if the city really had been eliminated.

I was recording the scene when the announcement was given - the video, courtesy YouTube, is below. If you're only interested in the reaction and not the prelude, skip to 2:30.

Granted, as a Torontonian, I had a lot less emotional investment in this city's chances than a Chicagoan. Nevertheless, Chicago's defeat today will undoubtedly make waves in Toronto in the not-too-distant future, as it opens the door to a renewed Toronto bid for the Olympic Games. I'm well aware that the Olympics are practically sacrosanct, and that the prospect of bringing an Olympics home would make any mayor's career, but in light of my experience I don't know if those five rings deserve to be placed on so high a pedestal.

Right now, when I think Olympics, I think Vancouver, as the 2010 Winter Olympic Games will be held there in February. I also think of cost overruns, debt, and falling-down architecture. Sure, Montreal's Olympic Stadium is a sight to behold now, but in its day it was a white elephant - it wasn't even completed in time for the 1976 Olympics, the retractable roof wasn't finished until 1988, and a design flaw meant that the roof couldn't even be closed when the winds blew faster than 40 kilometers per hour. It was not until 2006 that Montreal finished paying for the stadium. Given the news I'm hearing from the West Coast today, coupled with the bad economy, I'd say it's a fair bet that Vancouver will be paying for the "privilege" of hosting the Olympics into the 2040s.

Toronto's most recent shot at Olympic glory was in 2001, when it faced off against Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. I recall at the time how disappointed I was at Beijing's victory - after all, Toronto's a major city, and it deserves a major event, right? Today, of the five largest cities in Canada, only Toronto and Ottawa haven't hosted an Olympic Games.

Nevertheless - is this a bad thing?

The International Olympic Commission hasn't done the best job of polishing its image. When I think of them I think of the demands they put on their host cities, of the millions and billions of dollars shoveled into catering for an athletic competition that could be better spent on improving the lot of the people, and of the "free speech areas" that Olympic security officials will be carving out in Vancouver next year. That free speech is legal throughout Canada is irrelevant; that the Olympic Games would merely brook this possibility is disturbing enough for me.

Had Chicago come out on top today, Toronto's chances would have been shattered for years. The IOC would never award the Games to two Great Lakes cities in short succession. Maybe that would've been for the best. Toronto has enough problems as it is without having to figure out some way to pay for a billion-dollar Olympic Games.

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