NOTE: This article originally ran on the Groupon Presents: Chicago Sun-Tribune website on July 20, 2016.
CITY HALL—Amid record temperatures and widespread public anger, Mayor Richard M. Daley today held a press conference to warn Chicagoans to keep indoors this weekend and “stay the hell out of the way” of the veritable army of construction workers set to arrive to the city en masse tomorrow. The out-of-state contractors and engineers, estimated at ten thousand, will attempt to complete necessary construction as Chicago scrambles to ready itself for the thirty-first Olympiad starting Friday, August 5.
Mayor Daley strove to assure Chicagoans that despite another failed offering of municipal bonds, the costly hiring of out-of-state contractors would salvage the city’s preparations to host the international sporting event, once hoped to rejuvenate aging infrastructure and now collectively regarded as the worst large-scale municipal undertaking in American history. “Of course I know what it’s gonna cost. I know it better than you do,” Daley snapped at a reporter, his tie undone and wrinkled. “You know about the $2.3 billion, you know, deficit this year. Yeah, it’s a lot. We’ll deal with it.” The $600 million Daley Stadium, flagship of the proposed Olympic construction projects, remains “about 70% done,” according to Olympic Committee president Tom Williford. South Michigan Avenue’s new Pritzker Hotel, stretches of planned CTA track extensions, and almost the entirety of the Olympic Village, among other sites, remain far from completion.
“Who cares,” said Maris Devina of Canaryville, one of many passengers stranded by a sudden 45-minute delay at the Roosevelt Green Line stop in 102-degree heat. “He can say whatever he wants. I don’t even want to go outside. But I’ll tell you what, if he wants to get my taxes this year, he’s going to have to send the National Guard after me. F*ck him.”
Public resentment of the Olympics appears to have reached a fever pitch just as the games are set to get underway. Last week, Time magazine ran a cover story verifying the infamous local claim that not a single building project for the 2016 Olympics has been developed free of financial malfeasance or criminal convictions—often both.
Chicagoans’ eroded confidence in city officials stands in stark contrast to that of October 2009 when, after being selected host city by the International Olympic Committee, Mayor Daley announced that he would postpone surprise retirement plans to see the Games through to completion. “These are our Games!” he said to uproarious applause in Grant Park, echoing the planning committee’s media slogan. Problems, however, soon arose. Initially conceived as a privately-funded event, an unenthusiastic corporate community sourced far less financing than projected. When fundraising shortfalls threatened construction on a number of early building projects, the city stepped in to cover the gap, and it was soon apparent that significant public money would have to be spent.
The city’s fumbling use of funds and questionable oversight turned tragic on September 19, 2010, when four crewmen and one student were killed by the collapse of a half-finished wall of a slated Olympic Village building near the UIC campus. An independent investigation found that the structure’s concrete foundation was ten inches shallower than required by building codes. A public outcry followed when Moriarty & Co, the builder who had been awarded a number of Olympic contracts under allegedly shady bidding practices, was acquitted of all related charges on a procedural technicality. Few citizens were surprised when the subsequent federal investigation shined a light on the underbelly that thrived with the influx of billions of dollars into the local economy.
The low point of the Olympic preparations was doubtless the 2014 RICO conviction of most of the Chicago Olympic Planning Committee on charges ranging from misdemeanor negligence to extortion, fraud, and racketeering. Plans were further stymied later that year by arguably the most important event of Chicago’s Olympic run-up, the landmark Wyatt v. State of Illinois ruling, hailed by housing activists as the most important eminent domain decision in forty years. As the IOC’s deadline for approval of building designs came and went, city officials frenzied to find adequate staging areas for Olympic events and housing, at points giving serious consideration to such bizarre proposals as the so-called “Flotillalympics” on Lake Michigan and construction of an 89-story Olympic Tower on the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital in which pools, tracks, and other stadia would be housed. Desperate for cash, Mayor Daley announced at a press conference on the morning of October 6, 2014 that all rights to Navy Pier had been sold to a private consortium for $3.2 billion the previous night, and rumors swirled of his nearly consummating a deal to sell the Chicago Public School system to a Norwegian marketing firm.
Last year saw the first real steps toward completion, as the court-appointed Friends of the Olympics Oversight Board (FOOB) was awarded a $2 billion grant as part of the Federal Reserve’s Urban Torque stimulus program. Construction commenced on Daley Stadium and the Olympic Village at its current location, north of the Stevenson between Ashland and Damen. Nearly the full year passed without any delays en route to what looked to be a miraculous turnaround of fortune. Then, in December 2015, US District Attorney Peter Hannig shocked a weary public with these Olympics’ second large-scale criminal allegation, charging the Illinois Contractor Licensing Board (established in 2012) with conspiracy to collude and solicitation of bribery. Sentencing on the June conviction included a federal judge setting an injunction against the hiring of any Illinois contractor for Olympic developments, which still stands today despite an ongoing appeals process. With less than two months to go until the delayed start date, Mayor Daley pushed through the city council a resolution allowing the city to borrow around $7 billion (the exact figure is still not known) against future budget cuts and from public pension funds. The endowment allowed FOOB to hire out-of-state building and engineering firms, in many cases at super-prime rates, to travel to Chicago and complete construction.
As of today, not a single Olympic building has been certified as fully completed save for the Northwestern Memorial Judo Center, finished in 2015. Williford announced that construction priorities will be building out the Pritzker Hotel and road repair, as per an IOC inspector who declared not a single ten-mile stretch of Illinois roadway suitable for the marathon and cycling events. Last Wednesday, Governor Lisa Madigan claimed damages from lightning strikes in western Cook County as the pretense for declaring a state of emergency, thus allowing nearly all state functions to focus on assisting the Chicagoland area’s preparations. Makeshift tent cities have been set up for the workers arriving tomorrow, hoping to give a welcome end to a saga most Chicagoans, and Americans, desperately want to pass.
Gozamos Quarterly contributed to the reporting of this article.