Chicago’s Olympic Bid: Things Need to Change First

Recent press reports have indicated that Chicago has formed a committee to explore a bid for the 2016 Olympics. Good. That’s in keeping with the “I Will” and “Make no little plans…” spirit of this city. But, this committee can’t operate as business as usual, or Chicago will taste the agony of defeat, before it ever has a chance to experience the thrill of victory in its Olympic bid.

Past efforts at major civic projects in Chicago haven’t met with great success. The Crosstown Expressway, 1992 World’s Fair, Lake Calumet Airport, and Downtown Circulator all met with resounding defeat, due to either lack of broad community support, political infighting, or sometimes both. Millennium Park seems to be the notable exception, even though it could be argued that this was a more localized downtown improvement project, rather than a major civic endeavor that required support from all areas of the city and both political parties.

If Chicago is going to launch a bid for a major event like the Olympics, with its tremendous economic impact, it can’t be doomed before it even starts. Past committees formed to support major civic endeavors like the 1992 World’s Fair and Lake Calumet Airport generally have been comprised of older, white, downtown oriented business leaders, whose method of operation to date has been to hold up in some downtown club to “hatch” a plan, and then “spring” that plan on Chicago’s citizens and politicians alike, in the feverish hope of gaining support for their brilliant idea. (Full disclosure here—I’m an older, white business guy, who belongs to a downtown club, and who supported many of these past civic endeavors). The rationale for operating in this exclusive way has been that, if too many people (read: people from the neighborhoods) are brought into the “process” too early, then nothing will get done. Of course, nothing got done with these projects, anyhow!

Hopefully, things will be different now. Hopefully, those charged with exploring the feasibility of bringing the 2016 Olympics to our city will learn from past mistakes, and recognize both the changing face of Chicago and the necessity for including all of Chicago’s citizens and all political interests “up front” in the exploratory and planning process.

According to the U.S. Census, when the doomed Crosstown Expressway was being planned in the 1970, Chicago was 65 % white, 33% black, and 2% “all others”. (Hispanics weren’t identified separately). By 1985, when planning for the ill-fated 1992 Chicago World’s Fair was underway, the city was 47% white, 38% black, 13% Hispanic, and 2 % “all others”. And, by 1995, when Lake Calumet Airport’s wings were clipped and the Downtown Circulator fell of its tracks, Chicago was 42 % white, 36 % black, 18 % Hispanic, and 4 % “all others”. As of 2004, the city was 41 % white, 31% black, 24 % Hispanic, and 4 % “all others”.

Chicago has changed. The city is more diverse, now—and, hopefully, the wise heads that populate the committee charged with exploring Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics will realize the necessity for including all of Chicago’s citizens and all interest groups early on in the exploratory and planning process. Otherwise, Chicago will simply have an “Olympic moment”—and, we’ll be watching the games—and the dollars—move to another city.

Jewell W. Walton of S.B. Friedman & Co. ( contributed to this article.

“Voice of the People”, Chicago Tribune, (, May 23, 2006 Used with the permission of the Chicago Tribune.