Guest Post by Erica Hauswald

As the Summer Olympic Games are about to begin in London, it is a good time to re-consider the result of Chicago’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics—was it really a failure or in fact a blessing in disguise?


Beijing Opening Ceremony. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Apple Daily

Then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley spearheaded the drive to host the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago, supported by public figures from Oprah to the Obamas to Representative Jan Schakowsky. As Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader, one of the most vocal critics of the Chicago bid, publicized, Daley declared that he would sign the Olympic contract claiming that Chicago would take full financial responsibility for any economic losses as a result of the Games despite polls that registered strong dissent from Chicago residents to the idea. In a September 2009 Chicago Tribune poll, 45% of Chicago residents objected to hosting the games and an enormous 84% of residents disapproved of spending any public tax money on the Olympics. Moreover, the bid was found early on to be rife with political corruption, as the Chicago Tribune discovered that one of Daley’s Olympic Bid team members had strong ties to the firm that would have developed the $1.2 billion Olympic Village. The disparity between Daley’s endorsement and the public opinion in Chicago itself produced the activist organization “No Games Chicago.”  The group billed itself as a group of “Chicago citizens against the 2016 Bid,” committed to raising publicity around the potentially detrimental, even devastating, effects of the 2016 Olympic Games on the city.

As more and more long-term studies and expert forums are demonstrating, the Olympic Games have a long history of harming marginalized communities, but such harm has traditionally been hidden under the intangible benefits of “civic pride” that the Games supposedly bring to host cities. In reflecting on the impact of the 1996 Olympics on the city of Atlanta, Atlanta businessmen and city officials declared in a 2009 Chicago Tribune article that such “pride” remains the greatest legacy of hosting the games. However the economic efffects remain much darker.

From forced evictions to billions spent on athletic infrastructure to decades of resulting debt, the Olympic Games do more much more than advertise their host city on an international scale. A recent UN-funded three-year study conducted by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) found that the Olympics have “displaced more than 2 million people in the last 20 years,” a great majority of whom were homeless, poor, and/or ethnic minorities. Contrary to the rosy view of the Atlanta Games’ impact presented above, COHRE found that “the criminalization of homelessness was a key feature of the 1996 Atlanta Games: 9,000 arrest citations were issued to homeless people in Atlanta in 1995 and 1996 as part of the Olympic Games ‘clean up.’” Moreover, the destruction of many housing projects—a staple of Olympics preparation—displaced 6,000 Atlanta residents. A recent Telegraph article about prostitutes being “cleaned off the streets” in advance of the upcoming 2012 Games exposes a similar trend underway in London right now. Telegraph reporters found that there were 10 times more brothel raids in the Olympic districts than elsewhere in London over the past several months. For more information on the raids, see X Talk’s Stop the Arrests campaign to protect London sex workers in advance of the Olympics. As this article and others (including Ceasefire Magazine’s special report on “The Olympics and Social Cleansing”) point out, making the city more “presentable” for the Olympic Games also consistently means displacing and disrupting the lives of already marginalized populations.   The same practice is occurring now in Rio Di Janero, where residents of the city’s slums are fighting eviction in advance of the 2016 summer games being held there.

Countless favelas, or slums, in Rio de Janeiro set to be destroyed for 2016 Olympics. Photo courtest of Flickr user Nick Atkins.

Furthermore, countless experts continue to expose the myth that hosting the Olympics will be an economic boon for cities, debunking the dominant narrative of the Games boosting tourism and creating jobs. Instead, as economic experts note in the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog entry, “Do Olympic Host Cities Ever Win?” the vast majority of informed respondents declare that supposed economic boom of host cities is significantly over-exaggerated and that, in fact, the most lasting legacy of the Games is often decades of debt. Similarly, Deanna Isaacs of the Chicago Reader found, on a trip to Beijing several months before the start of the 2008 Games that the impending Olympics had the effect of effectively stopping business citywide. Tourism in Sydney and Barcelona since their Olympic Games has not significantly increased in any way. In fact, the 2000 games in Sydney were followed by a “three-year decline in international visitors.” The dearth of increased tourism coupled with persistent overspending in Olympic preparation creates a situation for host cities that is, by almost all accounts, extremely damaging to both the infrastructure and the residents.

So perhaps, as the Olympic Games approach, we should be celebrating that Chicago has been spared the burden. In losing the fight for the 2016 Olympics, we have won a greater gift: safety from a shutdown of our local economy, long-term debt, and devastating “social cleansing” on an international stage.

What do you think?  Would hosting the Olympic Games have been a good thing for Chicago?  Do you think tourism would have increased in Chicago after the games had left?  Is there a socially conscious way to host the Olympic Games without displacing marginalized people?

Erica Hauswald is a writer and literary enthusiast who just received her B.A. from Grinnell College. She will be teaching in New York City Public Schools next year as a Blue Engine Teaching Fellow. She is extremely excited to be writing for Neighborhood Writing Alliance!

  • Liz

    Great post. I had mixed feelings about having the Olympics here. On one hand, I thought it would have been pretty cool and perhaps one of the few opportunities I’d have to see parts of the Games live. On the other hand, for all the reasons you stated and more, I didn’t think it would be great for the city in the long run. The Olympics are fun, but people still need to live their lives as they are happening, and I have already been hearing about what a nightmare it is to get around in London right now. Additionally, I was reading the other day how many of the structures built for the 2008 games in Beijing are now vacant and unmaintained–and that was only 4 years ago!

  • Pete

    Not getting the Olympics is one of the best things that ever happened to Chicago. Underpriviliged people would have been pushed aside, everyday life would have been totally disrupted, and the city would have been saddled with billions in extra debt for decades. And all for what? To prove Chicago is a world-class city? To stroke Daley’s ego? To make well-connected developers even richer? We should all breathe a sigh of relief, and pity Rio de Janeiro.