Not long after saying that health care was more important than lobbying for the Olympics, Barack Obama decided to make the trip to Copenhagen to lobby to put the 2016 Olympics in Chicago.
On this one, here’s hoping he loses.
Hosting the Olympics is a terrible idea. At best, it is a vaguely (or not so vaguely) fascist demonstration of national power, a time for Germany or Japan or China to announce its place on the world stage. Good for them. Let the aspiring nations of the world deal with the bankrupting expense.
There are two major international sporting events: the Olympics and the World Cup.
The World Cup is a tournament featuring the world’s most popular sport, soccer, that spans a month and an entire host country. It takes place in existing stadiums and generates tremendous tourism revenue as eighty thousand people move from city to city following their teams.
The Olympics features such exciting events as badminton, judo (not to be confused with taekwondo, a separate Olympic martial art), table tennis, and the ever-popular modern pentathlon. What events exist that are somewhat recognizable – basketball, boxing, soccer, tennis - are minor accomplishments in the careers of the participants. So few baseball players bothered to show up that they dropped the sport altogether. The prestige event, which requires an entirely-new 80-100,000 seat arena, features hours of people walking in suits followed by thousands of people dancing: the opening ceremonies. Amazingly, no one seems to have considered hosting the event in Pyongyang.
The US is a fantastic stadium-building country. If there were a stadium-building competition, the rest of the world would have long ago conceded our unassailable superiority. We have five stadiums with seating capacity over 100,000 (Beaver, Michigan, Ohio, Texas Memorial, Neyland), and probably forty more that are as large as Beijing’s Olympic Stadium (incidentally, unused since August 2008) with significantly better food courts and luxury suites.
Chicago just happens to have one of these stadiums, thanks to $600mm taxpayer dollars that were spent rebuilding Soldier Field:
Back in the day of the original Soldier Field, 100,000 people could pack into the stadium. Over the years, however, it was discovered that people liked sitting in seats, and they preferred that these seats have a view of something that looks like the sport they came to watch (the Dallas Cowboys aren’t sure about this). New Soldier Field takes capacity down to 61,500, and reduces the distance from the front-row midfield seat to the playing field to 55 feet.
Of course, that’s not good enough for the Olympics. You see, the giant track to accommodate the people slowly walking in circles won’t fit in Soldier Field – thank you, proximity to the football field. So the Olympics organizers would build an entirely new 80,000 seat stadium in Washington Park:
This stadium would be used for exactly two weeks. The Bears have the stadium they want; had they wanted 80,000 seats pushed back to house a track, they would have built it six years ago. The Cubs and White Sox have their stadiums as well.
What would be the point? Track? I’ll name one track star: Usain Bolt. Now you name one. I’ll wait. You know where the biggest track event in the United States is held? Probably not, so I’ll tell you: Hayward Field, in Eugene, Oregon. With temporary stands to handle the overflow demand during the national championships, the stadium seats 21,000 people. That’s about as many Americans as want to watch a track meet, plus a few people who got confused on their way to a Ducks game.
Building stupid things at taxpayer expense is not an obscure flaw in the Olympic bid process. It is the entire point. It is manna from heaven for the contractors and builders who need a timeline to justify overtime, and it is a glorious opportunity for developers to trot out eminent domain.
Years ago, Richard Rainwater, one of the finest investors in American history, decided to buy the Texas Rangers. He installed a front man, George Bush, the son of the president, to grease the wheels, which would have been an odd decision if Rainwater, like most baseball team owners, was simply looking to have an expensive toy. But what Rainwater had discovered was that, while it was difficult to condemn land in property rights-focused Texas, once the power was granted for the unassailable public purpose of building a stadium, who was going to notice or object if you just took a huge swath of land, built a stadium on part of it, and put up apartments on the rest?
Sure enough, buried in the fine print of the Olympic bid book is the land grab to put a neighborhood on Chicago’s waterfront parkland with the power of eminent domain and the guise of a civic purpose. If it’s worth building housing there, have the debate – but don’t pretend it has anything to do with putting up some athletes for a couple of weeks.
Olympics were losers before 9/11. Now, with the need to avoid a Munich 1972 (or even Atlanta 1996) event coupled the need to avoid something far larger, the costs are out of control and the benefits no greater.
So here’s hoping that Chicago loses. Chicago is welcome to make all of the public works improvements discussed, it just doesn’t need to divert money to white elephants. Let the people of Rio pay for those.
In the meantime, let’s suck the oxygen out of the IOC by ending the practice of being the world’s sucker. We pay the lion’s share of the IOC budget, but not only do we not have the lion’s share of the votes, the rest of the delegates don’t particularly like us. While most other countries require that the games be available to the state broadcaster, we let the IOC auction the Games. Nationalize the rights. Or, more precisely, state that PBS is the only permitted bidder, and it will bid the same amount per-person as the lowest-paying EU state broadcaster. Then offer that feed on a non-exclusive basis to every other American broadcaster, provided they split the cost with however many other channels wish to show the Games (eg if NBC and ESPN wish to show it, they each must pay PBS one third of PBS’ fee).
In fact, to really tweak the IOC, make that provision apply only to Games held outside the US. The IOC will be begging American cities to host the Games in no time.
And it’s Rio. The best of all worlds – nice weather, a US-friendly time zone, and a government with a chip on its shoulder and a willingness to spend money on the event. When it’s all over, and the nation owes more money and has a useless waterfront sports complex, it won’t be Chicago’s problem.