News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

This would have been the year for Chicago's boondoggle Olympics

Some of the same people saying we’re too broke to fund the schools were throwing money at the 2016 games—including our governor.


  • Jason Frederick

A few days before Governor Rauner's State of the State speech, I woke to find a couple of unusual comments on my Facebook time line.

There's a connection, so stay with me.

"Good points," wrote a guy named Mike, under a link to one of my columns. "Though the Bears did beat Green Bay once this year."

To which my old pal Bob added: "It wasn't a good enough win for Ben."

With that I was hit by a jolt of panic not unlike the "midnight terrors" that the great Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner recently described in his farewell column.

That's where he would wake in the middle of the night with the "haunting thought" that he'd misspelled someone's name.

In my case, I was terrorized by the thought that I had said the Bears lost to the Packers when they'd actually won.

I didn't recall making that mistake. I mean, I know I'm not getting any younger, but my brain's still sharp enough to remember that the Bears beat the Cheeseheads on Thanksgiving night.

So I looked at the column that Mike had posted: "When Chicago spent its pension money on the mayor's pet project."

And that's how I discovered that a column published April 15, 2014—with a now outdated wisecrack about the Bears—had suddenly gone viral.

OK, not viral like a video by Adele, Justin Bieber, or Conan O'Brien—by the way, his latest "ride along" with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube is hilarious.

But about as viral as a geeky column on Mayor Daley's boondoggles can get.

I had mixed feelings about this blast from the past finding new legs. On one hand, I was delighted to see that people found it relevant.

On the other hand, what took you so long?!

As long as we're trying to make sense of the present by delving into the past, allow me to share another nugget from the archives: "Funds and games: Chicago's 2016 Stewardship Report."

It's a column I wrote in September 2009 on who funded then-mayor Daley's efforts to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. Speaking of nightmares that can jolt you from your deepest sleep.

More to the point, it's a reminder of what can happen when so many wealthy and powerful people embrace a preposterous idea.

In this case, Daley asserted that Chicago could afford to pay for something as astronomically expensive as an Olympics.

I suppose I can understand why Daley propagated such fantasies. It wasn't his money. And besides, he was desperate to leave office with a bang.

But how could so many of our best and brightest civic and corporate leaders tag along for the ride?

Some probably figured they could make some money off the games. Others probably feared Daley's wrath. Many may have just wanted to show their pals that they too could write a hefty check.

But, c'mon, people—what were you thinking? At first Daley promised that he could stage the Olympics without spending one dime of public money. Meaning it would be the first huge public works project in the history of mankind that came in on budget.

That pledge alone should have taught everyone—especially so many smart and successful people—not to believe one word the mayor had to say about the Olympics.

Yet almost none of our corporate, civic, or political leaders dared to join the handful of citizen activists who broke ranks from the mayor.

This includes everyone from liberals to libertarians in both political parties. I haven't seen such unanimity of thought since the last days of the Soviet Union.

To convince the International Olympic Committee to award the games to Chicago, Daley mounted an expensive campaign that required him to pass the hat for contributions.

His fund-raisers brought in almost $73 million in "cash contributions and pledges" and unspecified amounts in "pro bono" support, like legal work and office space.

That money would pay for a lot of librarians today.

It seemed like everyone contributed, including many of the city's major corporations, foundations, and media.

In fact, just about the only media outlet in town not to donate money to Daley's cause was the Reader. No wonder he couldn't stand us.

When the IOC awarded the games to Brazil, the Tribune wrote an editorial headlined "Stand proud, Chicago."

"The soul of a city is revealed not only in its shining moments of victory," the Trib editorialized, "but in how it handles adversity."

Adversity? Are you kidding me?! Most ordinary Chicagoans cheered when the games went to Rio.

The funny thing is that many of the same civic and corporate Olympic boosters are now swearing up and down that we're too broke to pay pensions to retirees. Just so you know, Rauner and his private equity firm contributed at least $100,000 to Daley's Olympic plan. There was plenty of money just a few years ago to build arenas in the parks—eh, gov?

I'd say that falling for Daley's Olympic follies is like believing the central assertion of Rauner's State of the State.

I told you I'd get to it.

In his speech last week, Rauner pledged to cut state taxes and cap local property taxes—basically boasting that he could run the government on nothing.

He may be Bruce the revolutionary now, but back when Daley was shilling for the Olympics Rauner was just one of the boys.

Still, it's clear there are some differences between Daley and Rauner.

Daley's policies were driving us to bankruptcy, though I don't think that was his goal.

In contrast, I'm starting to think that Rauner actually wants government to go bankrupt.

Here's hoping that this time around our best and brightest citizens find the courage to tell the boss he's wrong. v

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