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The Big Gamble
David Epstein
September 28, 2009
Can Chicago afford the Olympics?
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September 28, 2009

The Big Gamble

Can Chicago afford the Olympics?

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When they gather in Copenhagen on Oct. 2 to choose the host city for the 2016 Summer Games, International Olympic Committee members—they'll pick from finalists Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo—will be met by First Lady Michelle Obama, on hand to lobby for votes on Chicago's behalf. The White House wasn't making it official as of Monday, but there's a chance her husband will join her.

While Chicago organizers are trotting out the big guns in a final push for their $4.8 billion plan, excitement over hosting the Games may be waning at home. Earlier this month a Chicago Tribune poll found that nearly as many Chicagoans don't want the Olympics (45%) as do (47%), a sharp decline from the 2-to-1 support in the paper's February survey. What changed? For starters, it was a cold, dark economic summer in the city, which raided a rainy-day fund to close a $300 million budget deficit and has implemented shutdown days for services such as sanitation and libraries.

There is also a backlash among windy citizens against Mayor Richard Daley. He promised for months to shield the city from economic exposure in the Olympic bid, but in June the mayor did an about-face and agreed to sign the standard IOC contract that puts full financial responsibility for cost overruns on the host city and organizing committee. Daley had to do it—no city in the last quarter century has won the Games without signing the contract—and organizers have insurance to cover some shortfall risks. But taxpayers are angry that they will be the ultimate backstop. "It's fine to wave the Olympic flag," says Tom Tresser, a teacher who in June went to the IOC's office in Switzerland to lobby against the selection of his hometown. "But the city is broke as a stone." After nearly three years of wooing the IOC, some Chicagoans may celebrate a failed bid more than a successful one.

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