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Obama Looks to Aid Chicago’s Olympic Bid at Finish Line

September 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama will travel to Copenhagen this week to lobby on behalf of his hometown of Chicago and its bid to land the 2016 summer games.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Chicago gets some big-time help in its race for the Olympics. Ray Suarez has that story.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Chicago is ready. The American people are ready. We want these games. We want them.

RAY SUAREZ: In its effort to win the 2016 Summer Games, Chicago has called in a heavyweight windy city resident: President Obama. Earlier this month, he aimed a long-distance message at Olympic organizers.

BARACK OBAMA: If you choose Chicago, I promise you this: Chicago will make America proud, and America will make the world proud.

RAY SUAREZ: Now the president and first lady will personally coax members of the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen this week as Friday’s final vote approaches.

Along with Chicago, the committee is considering Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Madrid, Spain, and Tokyo, Japan, as host cities.

If Chicago wins, it will be the first American city to host the Summer Games since Atlanta in 1996. Chicago has worked hard to polish its image and show off through ads like this, showing the potential benefits of hosting the games.

Winning the games is more than just a boost to national pride.

MAYOR RICHARD DALEY, Chicago: Most importantly, the Olympic and Paralympic Games would be a huge boost to our economy, raising it to a new level. They would help us recover sooner from the recession.

OLYMPIC SPOKESMAN: The games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of London.

RAY SUAREZ: Four years ago, the United Kingdom celebrated a hotly contested victory over France to host the 2012 games. It took a personal bid from Prime Minister Tony Blair at the last minute to do it. Since then, London has seen a building boom in anticipation of the next Summer Games.

And while London is enjoying a boom at the moment, some cities have had less fortunate experiences with the Olympics. It took Montreal 30 years to pay its Olympic bills, and Athens is still reeling from cost overruns in 2004.

Robert Baade is professor of economics at Lake Forest College and president of the International Association of Sports Economists. He’s written widely on the impact of the Olympics and other sporting events, and joins us this evening from Chicago.

Well, Professor, is bringing celebrity firepower to a bid one of the ways cities can legitimately compete, now that the IOC has changed its selection procedures in the wake of scandals in the ’90s?

Chicago makes its case

Richard Daley
Mayor of Chicago
The Olympic and Paralympic Games would be a huge boost to our economy, raising it to a new level. They would help us recover sooner from the recession.

ROBERT BAADE, Lake Forest College: Yes. And I think the interaction really between IOC members and those who are boosters for the games and host cities, that contact is very limited at this point. And as you noted, it's a result of what happened with the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games.

And so heads of state will have some contact, but they've got a very, very short or small window to meet with IOC representatives to make their personal bids. And so the contact is limited, but there is some contact for roughly 12 hours, 10 to 12 hours. And so it may be that they're able, as I noted before, to sway a few votes.

RAY SUAREZ: How much does geography and geopolitics matter in the selection process? Tokyo has been an Olympic city in the past, but there's never been a games in Latin America or Africa, and Rio is seen as a sentimental favorite by some.

ROBERT BAADE: And I think that's right. I think Rio is a sentimental favorite. And I think that it may be time for the Americas to get the Olympics again.

One of the things working against, I think, Tokyo is the fact that Beijing had the games in 2008. One of the things working against Madrid is the fact that London will host the games in 2012. And so I think that, if you really wanted to handicap this, I think it's between Rio and Chicago.

RAY SUAREZ: How does Chicago propose to pay for its Olympic bid? Is there a lot of public money involved in putting on this planned 2016 games?

ROBERT BAADE: No. And I think that it's typical for the American bids for the games to be financed privately. Whether or not that can actually happen in this particular case, I think we're all waiting to see.

But the games for Chicago have been advertised as privately financed games, but undoubtedly, given the history of cost overruns, given some exaggeration of what it is that occurs in the way of benefit, it's likely to be the case that the costs will outstrip revenues and public financing of some sort will undoubtedly occur.

RAY SUAREZ: While it's easy to count the losses, is it sometimes harder to count the benefits? Barcelona seems pretty pleased that the games put that city on a worldwide map. Might Chicago accrue benefits that have more to do with making people around the world aware of its existence?

ROBERT BAADE: I think that's the hope. And I think that Barcelona, I think, had a brilliant plan. I think that they developed a strategy that really involved remaking the city.

One of the problems that Chicago has -- and I'm not proposing that Chicago spend a lot more money -- but one of the problems that Chicago has had is the amount of money that they intend to spend is modest compared to what it is that we've seen in other Olympic Games, which means the chance that Chicago is really going to be able to present itself in a way that Barcelona did to the rest of the world is not likely.

Troubled Olympic legacies

Robert Baade
Lake Forest College
There's an opportunity for Chicago here. But whether it can provide enough in the way of a memorable experience to encourage people to come back is the real question.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, in some of your published scholarship on this topic, you've noted that the excitement of getting the Olympics sometimes blinds cities to the real risk of downside costs. What's the record here? Have cities that have been selected generally over time done well with their Olympic legacy?

ROBERT BAADE: The answer is no. And I think that, again, when you consider the size of the expenditure and you consider whether a city can sustain the kind of spike in economic activity they get when they've got this influx of visitors, it's highly unlikely. There has to be something very unusual that happens that allows for something in the way of an economic legacy.

Chicago has a bit of an opportunity here, because Chicago gets relatively few foreign visitors compared to, let's say, a city like New York or a city like Paris or London. I think Chicago gets a little bit more than a million foreign visitors a year; New York, by contrast, more than nine million; London and Paris more than 10 million.

So there's an opportunity for Chicago here. But whether it can provide enough in the way of a memorable experience to encourage people to come back is the real question.

It's not creating sports venues, for example, that will create the legacy, but something in the way of transportation or communications infrastructure that's key, really, to having some lasting effect from the Olympic Games.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Robert Baade joins us from Chicago. Thanks for talking to us.

ROBERT BAADE: You're very welcome, Ray. Nice to be with you.