The Invisible Fourth Pillar

Thursday, 03 September 2009 17:51 By Anne Elizabeth Moore, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

A rendering of the olympics 2016 on Chicago's lakefront.
(Photo: The Chicago Tribune)

    "The Olympics are just another appendage of neo-colonial privatization," 26-year-old activist Ryne Ziemba explains. He's distilling the arguments of fellow Chicagoans, not usually known for such eloquence. Chicagoans are, however, known to allow a dogged self-interest to guide their politics. That's why they're worried about the host-city bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, a project headed up by a not-for-profit organization called Chicago 2016 - and set to be announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on October 2.

    Ziemba's been heading up information-awareness campaigns around town for months, trying to make sure the city knows what the bid committee has planned for it. Even at overtly patriotic events - like when he handed out 700 to 800 fliers at a downtown Fourth of July celebration - he's seen about seven of every ten go to families more concerned about, than excited for, the Games.

    "I can count on one hand the number of negative responses we got," the activist says

    What Ziemba and Chicago are seeing that the rest of the nation hasn't yet is that the Olympics aren't about sports at all - and never really were. In 776 BC, when competition was limited to a single race (200 meter) and gender (male), it was held as a religious celebration of Zeus. In 393 AD, the Games were even abolished by Emperor Theodosius I as a body for rampant corruption and idolatry. Pierre de Coubertin revived them and created the IOC in 1894 as a means to combine nationalism, youth education, and physical fitness.

    The Games have since grown in scope, popularity, and, following the invention of modern media, both "viewership" and "sponsorship" until 1998, when members of the IOC acknowledged they had taken bribes in exchange for selecting certain host cities. This proved to many that the Olympica is rigged from the start - and convinced the IOC to hire infamous PR firm Hill & Knowlton to manage its image.

    The firm, of course, works in secret, and secrecy forms a kind of invisible fourth pillar to the Olympic movement's stated three: sports, culture and the environment. But what, exactly, do these pillars uphold?

    SPORTS: While there's no denying the thrill of athletic competition, heightened, certainly, when played out on the world stage, the IOC doesn't make its money off ticket sales to die-hard sports fans; the IOC makes it off the sale of broadcast rights and sponsorships (approximately $1.7 billion in 2008 alone). More brand-building than bodybuilding, the Games are attended by media at a rate of almost four to one over athletes. Recent revelations that lax drug-testing standards allowed six 'roided-up competitors - at least one a gold medalist - to compete in the 2008 Games gives even those normally defensive of the Games' pure athleticism pause. The July 10 British Columbia Supreme Court ruling proved to many that athletic merit isn't the primary consideration of the Olympics. The courts agreed that the 15 women kept from the all-male ski-jumping competition in the 2010 Games was gender discrimination, but found there was nothing they could do about it: The IOC, technically a Swiss NGO, stands outside national jurisdictions. "We are pleased that the Games can now proceed as planned," the IOC said in a statement following the decision.

    CULTURE: Early on, the rancor that separates the poetic souls from beefed-up ones was overcome by having artists compete for medals in Olympic-approved mediums like painting and sculpture. Discontinued in 1956 because it was stupid, the resultant noncompetitive Cultural Olympiad was found to make for bad ESPN, and even worse Wheaties boxes. Despite the rhetoric, culture is slighted in bid books and host-city contracts (as is, by the way, the Paralympic Games: Each are given a single paragraph in the 47-page bid summary - and around three pages in the full, multivolume bid books), and medal ceremonies, torch relays and opening and closing events are included in cultural budgets. Outside the Olympic village (remember, it's called a host-city contract), arts and culture fall under attack during budget crunches. A £900m shortfall in the London 2012 budget was simply yanked from lottery funding slated for the arts in 2006. Most affected by the crisis were cultural programs promised in the bid book, which had to compete for dwindling public funds as well as any remaining private money.

    Yet, the biggest cultural loss might be that of freedom of expression. Within the cultural Olympiad, of course anti-corporate work will be eradicated, but even as early as January, Chicagoans have seen rights to free speech trampled in the blazin' hot trail for the torch. (One stipulation in the host-city agreement essentially states that nothing to detract from the allure of the Games may take place immediately before, during or after the events. And, yes, it can be read to apply to politically dissenting organizations.) One local group, the NIMBY-fueled No Games Chicago, had planned an event called "Why Chicago should say 'NO' to the Olympic Games." When Chicago 2016 got wind of it, they sent an email blast to pack the forum with yes-saying volunteers, thus stifling opposition to the Games. (And saving big bucks! Paid marketers make $45 per hour for such labor.) A few weeks later, Chicago 2016, the mayor's office and the Chicago Park District were caught in a campaign to silence a coalition of boat clubs working out of Monroe Harbor, upset that they'd be displaced by the Games. A memo obtained by the Tribune threatened members by suggesting that, should they continue to raise protest, retribution could come in the form of lease nonrenewals.

    ENVIRONMENT: Any high school, save-the-whaler can tell you that human impact is the primary cause of environmental destruction - and the Olympics are all about human impact. So, it should come as no surprise that, for Vancouver 2010 alone, at least five multimillion-dollar mountain resort expansions have begun, seven new facilities approved and the $600 million widening of the Sea-to-Sky Highway - the road that connects Vancouver to Whistler, thus, tourists to the Games - is destroying two separate and unique ecosystems, one a home to two endangered species. A hundred thousand old-growth trees were removed in Callaghan Valley to make way for the Whistler Olympic Park. If there were a gold medal for environmental destruction in mega-sports development, the Olympics would win it.

    The urban Summer Games do even more damage - to people. Hitler's August 1936 Games in Berlin were kicked off by the first mass killings in June, but more recently, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has found that over 2 million folks have lost homes during the last 20 years of games . Most egregious in US history was 1996 Atlanta, where the occasion of the Olympics allowed for rampant displacement and the criminalization of homelessness through legislation still on the books today. Evictions in Beijing are well documented, and displacement is ongoing in London. (Oft-touted "low-income housing guarantees," like the one in Chicago 2016's "community benefits agreement," do offer affordable housing, but no monitoring system to reserve them for low-income renters.)

    Already in Chicago, unemployment is rising, homes are being foreclosed upon, and regions slated for Games venues are getting potholes and flowerbeds filled at an unprecedented clip. There's "real" nature, too, touted in the bid book as contributing to the splendor of the site. The Jarvis Bird Sanctuary is an 8-acre woodland and wetland, temporary shelter for over 150 species of traveling feathered friends, all of whom will be displaced should the 17,000-seat tennis court complex be built as planned. One environmental impact statement on the facility, commissioned by Chicago 2016, claimed no damage would be done to the fowls' migratory patterns, but this was debated at a Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association meeting in December when long-time volunteers at the sanctuary balked they'd never been approached by assessors. Chicago 2016's Patrick Sandusky suggested they commission their own report, at their own expense.

    He did, however, offer to look at it.

    Gold Medal in the Numbers Game

    Given all this, then, how are cities ever convinced to host the Summer Olympics? Because, at some point, the Olympics becomes a numbers game. Bid committees are often the only organizations interested in funding economic impact statements, so they essentially, ha ha, run the numbers. Of course, in doing so, they also tend to influence what those numbers indicate - and who can be convinced by them to play along.

    The difficulties with economic impact statements conducted by bid committees associated with mega-sports events, including both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, are many, and more accurate studies are generally not funded. Bid committee-funded statements tend to, for example, count both the indirect and direct costs of construction projects - counting, say, the $37 million Velodrome facility as one benefit, and then counting materials and building contracts as another $37 million benefit, for a final windfall of $74 million in benefits to the city that is actually out $37 million, but now has a really fast bike track. (Which, I admit, is still cool.) These statements also ignore the crowd-out effect of such events, whereby tourists are counted in addition to residents, many of whom have actually left town because of the tourists. They presume that all money spent locally stays local - when in fact the preponderance of multinational corporations associated with mega-sports events means most of it, really, doesn't. Additionally, they pretend the condition of temporary events is permanent, so that short-term jobs, for example, are hailed as raising the number of employment opportunities, even though those jobs are often gone within 15 months. Finally, economic impact studies don't take into account human impact, whether of temporary inconvenience or of otherwise well-documented, permanent low-income resident displacement.

    Yet, they're cheerful documents: Chicago's, for example, comes with the Chicago 2016 logo right on it, and opens with a downright ridiculous overview of the wonders of the Athens, Sydney and Atlanta Games before claiming to be an independent report. (All of these were, by most economists' accounts, sheer disasters.) Who, I ask University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson, created this report?

    "If you make a list of the hundred people that you should go to to get an impact study done, these guys would not have made my list," he says. "They wouldn't have made anybody's list ... I have been puzzled as to why a reasonably high quality group such as Chicago 2016 would turn so far away from the mainstream to get this report."

    "In my guilty-until-proven innocent approach," he suggests, "It was because these are the only two guys who are willing to say this."

    The few economic assessments that are conducted after the hubbub has died out point to one unassailable truth: Sports mega-events treat public funds the way World Cup fans treat each other after a few too many pints.

    But, Sanderson explains, this rarely affects the public perception of the bid. When economists start questioning the numbers in economic impact statements, bid committees "come back and say, ‘Well it's not about money, it's about community investment.'"

    So, it's all about the numbers - until it isn't anymore.

    Indeed, one of the most expensive events in the history of all sporting endeavors follows this rhetoric neatly: Beijing was never about money, defenders say, even as inklings of concern trickle from the seams of the country's well-guarded Olympic industry. The Beijing Games, which were originally estimated to cost $2 billion, but ended up costing $20 billion - with that same amount again spent on indirect costs - were about China taking its rightful place on the world stage.

    The Invisible Fourth Pillar

    A month out from the bid, Chicago is still the clear favorite to win the Games, mostly because American television viewing audiences like watching themselves on TV. America does have talent! Viewership of Chicago Olympic Games is estimated to be four billion strong, which is great news for the IOC, which stands to make the greatest profits by hosting the Olympics stateside. But what about the city's costs and benefits?

    The predicted cost of the Chicago Games was $3.3 billion when the bid book was submitted - almost exactly what London's were originally estimated at five years ago, before quadrupling. But that was back in February, and organizers are now predicting the Chicago Games will cost about $4.8 billion. In a state already $9 billion in the red. And a city that just leased out its parking meters (thanks, Daley!) for a billion dollars - a fifth of what they're worth.

    The parking-meter scandal broke in June, about the same time Daley visited the IOC in Switzerland and let slip that he - like all other US mayors before him - would sign the host-city agreement as is. This confused constituents: The agreement includes a guarantee of public funds to cover cost overruns and, until then, Daley had been telling taxpayers that "not a dime" of their money would go toward the Games. (Those that had been listening closely already knew the bid book stipulated a $500 million public guarantee; heard about the back-room negotiations that resulted in the Olympics' unfettered use of public parks; and watched as Daley created a new TIF in Bronzeville to fund construction of the Olympic Village, then financed an $86 million land purchase on which to place it. Those that had been paying really close attention knew that public funding was stipulated in the host-city contract, a legacy of the Atlanta Games' so-called "Logo Olympics.")

    And city residents weren't sure they wanted to play these Games anyway. After all, poll after poll indicated that what residents had wanted from the Games was improved public transportation - sadly unmentioned in the bid or its budget.

    The recent scandal had Chicagoans growing suspicious - and city council concerned. Alderman Richard Mell of the rapidly gentrifying 33rd Ward sent out an email soliciting opinions on the Olympic bid late in that month. "Should we move ahead or should we discontinue our fight for the 2016 bid?" the note queried.

    When negative responses came flooding in, Mell's office viewed it as a breakdown of, and not an example of, democracy. As one staffer explains it, they received so many responses - especially after "someone put it on the Twitters" - they stopped tallying opinions. Another staffer says, "When you do something like this, the negative ones are gonna jump on the bandwagon right away. By and large it was interesting because there seemed to be a mixed reaction."

    The "mixed reaction" - before they stopped counting negative responses - consisted of 72 definite nos, and 37 definite yeses. That's a 56 percent no vote on the bid, and only a 29 percent yes vote. Does Mell, I ask the staffer, intend to withhold support for the bid?

    "We wanna see what the Olympic committee has to say first," he tells me.

    Why should Chicago 2016 have a say in what the Alderman supports? I ask. Shouldn't that be reserved for the people in his ward?

    I get no response, but at this point the staffer asks to remain anonymous. So, I ask, was this email sent to solicit genuine responses or to find holes in the bid's marketing to the taxpayers?

    "It was sent to actually solicit what people actually thought," he tells me. "We got comments, we got the reasons why they voted, and some of the reasons are not necessarily valid because they don't match up with the facts of the situation.... What it showed was that the people running our Olympics program haven't done a real good job explaining to the city what they're up to. It had little to do with the Olympics and more to do with the fact that the people believe they're going to have to pay for the Games than with the Games themselves."

    The staffer wasn't interested in hearing that taxpayers - by Mell's pen, and the rest of city council's - had already been conscripted to pay for the Games. And three weeks later, as if responding to market research, Chicago 2016 started a "50 Wards in 50 Days" campaign, visiting each neighborhood in the city to try to do a better job "explaining to the city what they're up to."

    What they're up to, Community Relations Director Gyata Kimmons announces at a July 9 meeting with the Robert Taylor Working Group, is great! They've got the federal government already on board to cover whatever public transportation the city needs because, Kimmons explains, the Olympics are classified as a National Special Security Event. (NSSEs do cover expenses such as sharpshooters, police dogs and military presence, but not public transportation, so this appears to be a blatant, ahhh, mistake. Kimmons, however, did not respond to follow-up questions, in person or via email.)

    Also exciting, Kimmons tells the group in Bronzeville, is that the community-benefits agreement promises ten percent of the contracts resulting from a successful bid will go to minority or women business owners. This is actually old news, and fell under dispute in December of 2008, when Chicago 2016 was revealed to have granted 94 percent of its employment contracts to whites - all the highest-paid ones. A "community benefits agreement" was created in response, a nonbinding memorandum with no oversight. Because much of the labor necessary to bring the Olympics to Chicago will go into the $398 million stadium at Washington Park, some have suggested a 40 percent minority or women-owned business rate would be more beneficial to the community, where 98 percent of the population is African-American, the median income less than $15,000 per year and residents are already feeling the pinch of developers.

    The meeting is being held at the former site of the famous Robert Taylor Homes, and what Kimmons doesn't acknowledge is that those who live in the area will fund construction of the Olympic village under a new Bronzeville TIF (this stands for Tax Increment Financing, and it's Daley's fancy name for a tax hike).

    Yet, the big picture - future taxes, years of debt, potential displacement - matters here far less than the desperate need for immediate employment. "How will the Olympics generate jobs?" one woman asks, "And how can I prepare myself to be employable?

    In response, Kimmons sells her the Olympic Dream - on deep credit.

    In August, at one of the "50 Ward in 50 Days" meetings, Pat Ryan himself comes out to a meeting in Lincoln Square. He's the chairman and CEO of Chicago 2016, and the founder of the Aon Corporation, one of the bid's biggest financial supporters. He offers a new solution to the transportation gaps in the bid - "shuttle buses, [which will] double the capacity of transportation in the city," - and outlines a glowing picture of the financial benefit of the Olympic Games to Chicago.

    According to the bid committee's findings, the Games would bring in $22 billion in indirect economic impact and $1 billion in new tax money. This is thought to amount to $450 million of pure profit (technically eaten by the $1.3 billion budget hike already, but who's counting?).

    Of course, Pat Ryan adds, "none of this money is available unless we win the Games." He assures us that the "small risk" that the public will pay for the Games - he's referring to the $500 million guarantee, not acknowledging what's in the host-city contract, as that doesn't seem to be a part of the PR program yet - is "far outweighed by the benefits."

    Then he adds in an impassioned tone, "Our bid will divert money ... Oops. Wait." Ryan pauses, and then he's back on message: "Our bid will not divert money from the city." He then outlines his own Olympic Dreams.

    And if city council and the bid committee continue trampling democracy in an effort to get their message out, Chicago will be paying for them for a long, long time.


    Anne Elizabeth Moore is the Chicago-based writer behind "Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity" (The New Press, 2007). Full disclosure: she put it "on the Twitters," Mell.

(Photo: The Chicago Tribune)
Last modified on Thursday, 03 September 2009 19:18