Picking Chicago’s Pockets with the Olympics

ANYBODY GOT $500 million collecting dust under the couch? If you live in Chicago, take a second look between those cushions. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has let it be known that the people of the Windy City could pay out as much as $500 million if they are awarded the 2016 Summer Games. Chicago’s Olympic Chairman Patrick Ryan harrumphed that there was no chance of this, since–by his logic–the Olympics don’t lose money. They make money. He said that the Summer Games have never incurred debt, and “we would have to be the first really incompetents to do that.”

Leaving aside Ryan’s clear grudge against grammar, one has to wonder whether he learned Olympic history at the feet of Beavis and Butthead. The unassailable truth is that the Olympics treat cities like Dick Cheney treats hunting buddies. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael Fish wrote, “You stage a two-week athletic carnival and, if things go well, pray the local municipality isn’t sent into financial ruin.”

Ryan doesn’t have to believe this, but as the saying goes, he also doesn’t have to believe in gravity to fall out of a plane. When the LA Olympics turned a profit in 1984, it was widely remarked how it was the first city to end in the black since 1932. Montreal, the host city for the 1976 games still swims in Olympic red. Athens, Greece, will be in debt from the 2004 spectacle until the resurrection of Zeus. Chicago’s Big Boss Man, Mayor Richard Daley, has yipped repeatedly that the Olympics would not cost taxpayers a dime. Daley is either lying or high (or both?). During a recent USOC evaluation visit, an Olympic executive said the city’s residents should expect to reach into their pockets and put some “skin in the game.”

What a disturbing yet bizarrely apt metaphor. Any time someone asks you for some “skin,” and you’re not acting in a 1970s blaxploitation flick, it’s probably wise to run the other way. But it’s also apt. The Olympics always want their pound of flesh. Ryan eagerly leaped onto this metaphor like a vampire in a slaughterhouse. “You have to comply with what rules they establish, what they say it takes to win,” he said with relish. “Now we know it takes city skin in the game to win!”

BUT THERE are some residents who think that the people of this great city have given quite enough skin, not to mention blood and tears. A group of activists calling themselves Black People Against Police Torture (BPAPT) wants to keep the Olympics out. BPAPT doesn’t oppose the games on economic grounds, but instead is raising the issue embodied by its name. The group argues, “A city which tortures its own residents does not deserve the Olympics.”

BPAPT points to the sick legacy of Officer Jon Burge and his command who tortured hundreds in a station house nicknamed the “House of Screams.” As the Chicago Reader reported, “The detainees were Black; almost all of the accused police officers were white. The cops beat them with phone books, flashlights, and rubber hose, put guns to their heads, and administered electric shock, often targeting the genitals.”

Some brave whistleblowers attempted to contact the county state’s attorney. The state’s attorney ignored their pleas. That state’s attorney was named Richard Daley. BPAPT wants Daley to explain this dark corner of his past. They want to know why Burge still gets a pension. They want Chicago’s record of torture known by those awarding the Olympics.

They also have a powerful ally: 1968 Olympian Dr. John Carlos. Carlos is perhaps best known for being one half of the famous Black power salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City. “I want the mayor to get off his fanny and address this issue,” said Carlos. “He was the state’s attorney when this torture was taking place. The mayor needs to step up to the plate and get this thing resolved.” BPAPT makes a powerful argument. But they should also point out that if Chicago were in fact “honored” with the Olympics, a resurgence of police repression would surely follow.

It’s a very familiar script. Political leaders start by saying that a city must be made “presentable for an international audience.” Then police and security forces get the green light to round up “undesirables” with extreme prejudice. It’s as much a part of the games as that damn torch. When the 1936 Olympics came to Hitler’s Berlin, the “unpresentables” were placed in concentration camps for the duration of the games. Some never left. In 1984, LA Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of thousands of young Black men in the infamous “Olympic Gang Sweeps.” In 1996, the Atlanta games were supposed to demonstrate what President Clinton called “The New South.” The New South ended up looking a lot like the old one, as officials jailed thousands of homeless men and women without just cause. Repression followed the Olympic rings to Greece in 2004. Psychiatric hospitals were forced by the government to lock up those deemed mentally ill. In addition, Greece actually overrode its own constitution by “allowing” thousands of armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary troops from the U.S., Britain, and Israel. But the most heartless example of Olympic repression came in 1968 in Mexico City, where hundreds of Mexican students and workers occupying the National University were slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco.

The slogan for the Olympics has always been stronger, faster, better. It’s really guns, greed and graft. The people of Chicago certainly do not deserve the Olympics. They deserve far better.

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” , forthcoming from Haymarket. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com



DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.