Chicago, U of C celebrate Olympic nod

By Adrian Florido

The city of Chicago was selected as the American bid city for the 2016 summer Olympics on Saturday, beating two-time Olympic veteran Los Angeles for the opportunity to compete in the international phase of the selection process, which will include such Olympic hopefuls as Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Prague.

The decision, made by the United States Olympics Committee (USOC) following extensive reviews of the two American finalists, means that Chicago will now enter a more intense phase of planning and preparation for the international competition. The host city for the 2016 Olympics will be selected by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) on October 2, 2009.

As part of the city’s plan for major improvements to the municipal areas most affected by a successful bid, much of the area around the University and Hyde Park will undergo significant economic and residential redevelopment if Chicago is selected in 2009. Washington Park, directly west of campus, would be the site of the Olympic Stadium, an 85,000-seat arena used to host the opening and closing ceremonies as well as several athletic events. Following the Olympics, it would be downsized to a 5,000-seat amphitheater.

The University, which has worked closely with the Chicago 2016 committee to secure the bid, will continue to develop plans for neighborhood development and direct University involvement with the Olympic Games, with use of University athletic facilities being one of the possible forms of cooperation, said Hank Webber, vice president of Community Affairs. President Robert Zimmer’s status as a member of the Chicago 2016 committee will facilitate this cooperation. While plans for the University’s role remain in nascent stages, many of those determinations will likely be made before the final IOC decision is made, Webber said.

Because the IOC has historically made selections based largely on development plans that bid cities are able to guarantee, Chicago’s bid depends on significant and well funded proposals that will appeal to an international electing body.

An inability to produce solid plans for the construction of an Olympic stadium, as well as issues regarding adequate transportation for athletes, were important factors in New York City’s failed bid for the 2012 Olympics, which was instead awarded to London.

The guarantees that the city has already presented include funding in excess of $1 billion, as well as a significant academic fund that would enable participants of the 2016 games to attend various Chicago-area universities.

The scholarship fund, publicly announced following Chicago’s final presentation to the USOC in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, was the result of an agreement by several Chicago universities, including the U of C, to provide funds for Olympic athletes.

While the University has not committed a specific dollar amount for the fund, Webber expressed a commitment by the University to support the Olympic committee’s efforts.

“The Olympic committee has put together a proposal that provides scholarships for athletes, and given that we’re able to provide for the full financial need of our students, we’re in a position to do this,” Webber said. “Within our admissions policy, there’ll be room to do something creative. We’ll be working with .”

Aside from the support that the University will provide toward the Olympic effort, Webber cited tremendous benefits for the University and the community despite lingering concerns that major redevelopment of the South Side will intensify gentrification and contribute to increased housing costs that could put financial pressure on lower income residents.

“Many of the concerns are going to need to be addressed. I am absolutely confident that with the energy generated, this will be a boon for the city, an enormous boon for the University and a great boon for the community. But it’s going to take a lot of work,” Webber said.

Speaking at a lunchtime rally in Daley Plaza yesterday, Senator Barack Obama highlighted how the Olympics will hit close to home. “Now I have to admit I’m also happy that we got that new stadium coming in Washington Park, because that’s only a couple blocks from my house, so I’m going to be able to just walk a couple blocks to see it,” he said. “I know it’s not ’til 2016, but I should be back from Washington by then.”

At a rally held in the Washington Park Field House yesterday, black community leaders, joined by Mayor Richard Daley, gathered with South Side residents to celebrate Chicago’s selection over Los Angeles.

Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council (WPAC), opened the proceedings with a whole-hearted and enthusiastic endorsement of the USOC’s decision. Butler and the WPAC previously produced a list of 27 points that the council thinks need to be addressed in order to make Washington Park’s centrality to the Olympics beneficial to both the Games and to local residents.

Included among these requests are WPAC representation on the Chicago Olympic Committee, job training and Olympics-related internships for local students, improved safety and conditions in Washington Park, and support for cooperative housing. While few of the committee’s concerns were addressed during Monday’s rally, which took a largely celebratory tone, Butler said in a prior interview that the committee’s concerns remained a top priority for the WPAC.

“Our position has not changed,” Butler said. “We support the Olympics, but we’re asking the mayor and everyone else to support jobs, the economy, and the community. That campaign started Saturday.”

While not specifically citing the WPAC’s list, Daley did emphasize the important role that the Olympics in Chicago would play in the lives of local students.

“We’re going to every grammar school and high school…to open the eyes of young people about Olympic sports,” he said, invoking the history of prominent South Side residents who have gone on to become successful Olympians, including Jesse Owens and rally-speaker Mike Conley.