Friday, October 02, 2009

If You Wanna Win You Gotta Learn How to Play

By Kevin Guilfoile

UPDATE 2: Interesting pattern in the Olympic voting. Tokyo actually lost votes in the 2nd round, which shouldn't happen if everyone is voting their first choice and there are only minutes between rounds. But what if you are a group of Rio supporters confident Rio can beat Madrid and Tokyo, but worried about a close head-to-head showdown with Chicago? You might vote for the weakest bid, Tokyo, in order to push it over Chicago. With Chicago out (and presumably many Chicago voters switching their votes to Rio in order to keep the games in the American time zones) you can then switch your votes to Rio in rounds two through four.

(Note that odds-on/sentimental favorite Rio finished 2nd in the first round to Madrid.)

I have no idea, but it explains the pattern. And it would be poetic if Chicago lost the bid due to backroom political trickery.

MORE: Philip Hersh in the Chicago Tribune: "The answers include the nature of a secret ballot, sympathy votes, some flawed intelligence gathering, and skilled Rio electioneering to make sure Chicago did not make the final round."




Just before Noon Central Time today, a guy with an accent and an expensive suit is going to step in front of a podium in Copenhagen and say something like, "The International Olympic Committee awards the 2016 summer games to the city of..." and then he'll pause just slightly to heighten the drama before he says, Rio de Janeiro. Or Chicago. Or Madrid. Or Tokyo.

But probably not Madrid or Tokyo.

I wasn't born in Chicago but I choose to live here over anywhere else, which should be proof enough that I love this city. Nevertheless, I'm at best ambivalent about a Chicago Olympics. I like the Olympics a lot, but I also like sunsets. I've never felt an urge to be any closer to either of them than I already am.

The people who want to bring the Olympics to Chicago promise the event will deliver jobs by the tens of thousands and that cash will rain on the city like shotput-sized hail. Other people who study the history of such things say, maybe, but it's never happened before. When you take into account all the costs of staging an Olympic games, no municipality, including Los Angeles in 1984, has ever shown a net profit from the Olympics. Montreal spent 30 years repaying its Olympic debt.

Maybe that guy in Copenhagen should announce instead, "For agreeing reluctantly to take on the cost and inconvenience of the summer games, the International Olympic Committee wishes to thank..."

Of course, there are intangible benefits to having the Olympics, and if we get them I don't doubt I'll feel both excitement and pride when the games actually roll around and this beautiful city is showcased for the world. I'll be thrilled for local athletes who suddenly find their backyard transformed into the biggest stage on the planet. I have friends and family in Atlanta and none of them seem to have any regrets about the Olympics there. Still, I'm not sure what I'd risk for such abstract and distant pleasures and the bid team knows this, which is why they make it sound like the very economic future of the city depends entirely on javelins being tossed about in Washington Park.

Last spring I got a call from a guy at a decent-sized advertising agency in Chicago (not the one for which I used to work). They were producing some videos for Chicago 2016 and they had an idea to ask some Chicago writers to contribute copy for the voice over. There was a catch, though. Several actually. It had to be done fast, it had to be great, and they were working pro bono so they couldn't pay me.

I was too busy to work on a fire drill project so I didn't have to sift through my Olympic ambivalence before coming up with an answer. But after I hung up, something bothered me about the request. It wasn't just that they didn't want to pay me. I wondered more about why Chicago 2016 wasn't paying the ad agency.

The old joke ad folks usually tell clients when they walk in the door is this: "We can do great work, we can do fast work, and we can do cheap work. You get to choose two." But from this agency the bid committee was asking for all three.

Chicago 2016 isn't a charity case. They have a budget of almost $50 million just for the pitch. Somebody's getting paid for all these presentations. Somebody's getting paid a lot of money, in fact. The answer, obviously, is this particular shop was betting that if Chicago gets the Olympics, their pro bono work on the bid would be remembered and they'd get some high-paying, high-profile assignment for the main event. It was a campaign donation, essentially, but instead of giving money to a politician in hopes for some quid pro quo, they were donating their billings to a politician's pet project. Only people on the inside are making money now. The agency, which is on the outside, was giving away its work so it could get on the inside, where it could make money later.

The whole Olympics is going to be like this--a game in which Chicagoans will be made to feel like they should be emotionally invested when the real players will be behind the scenes: the guys with contracts waiting to be signed, and properties on the Olympic venue Monopoly board (Note: The Outfit's own David Heinzmann has been doing some terrific reporting on this at the Trib). Maybe the games will lose money on the whole, but some people, people on the inside, are going to make Benjamins by the bagful. These are the people who exaggerate the benefits, who make it sound like Chicago needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs Chicago (a dubious claim if only because the IOC stands to make another half billion or so in television rights for summer games on US soil) so that you'll support an endeavor that will line their pockets. It should be our responsibility to consider their promises skeptically, to shed light on their conflicts of interest.

Ben Joravsky, one of Chicago's most eloquent skeptics, has an excellent piece in the Reader this week, detailing all the reasons Chicago shouldn't want the games. I won't repeat his arguments, although you should read them for yourself, especially if Chicago wins this morning. Joravsky ends the piece asking why, if so many aldermen have so many concerns and doubts about the games, the city council voted unanimously to put the city on the hook financially for any cost overruns:

"There's no point in voting no—it only pisses off the mayor and I don't need that," I was told by one alderman who didn't want his name used in print.

Besides, he added, "We're not getting the games—Rio's getting them. You heard it here first."

And if you're wrong? I asked him.

"We're screwed."

NOTE: Ben Joravsky will be on WGN720 AM after 7:30 tonight to talk about the bid.

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Barbara D'Amato said...

Very, very interesting, Kevin. In the last day I've had several people tell me ALL Olympics made money or NO Olympics made money. Not the same people, of course. I'm tending to your skeptical point of view.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Yeah, I know Barb. Like everything it depends on what you count. I'm no forensic accountant so I can only go by what feels true. It seems to me the Olympics are very unlikely to make money, but that there might be benefits that are impossible to quantify.

Millennium Park was a boondoggle by accounting standards, but I don't know any Chicagoan who wishes we didn't have it. The Olympics might turn out to be the same way. We might end up with some much needed transportation and infrastructure improvements, stuff that would never get approval without the demands of the games. I don't know, and like I said, I'm not against the Olympics in Chicago. When and if they come around, I'll be cheering along with everyone else. But if we get them, I just hope for continued vigilance from guys like David Heinzmann and Ben Joravsky.

Dana King said...

Accountants can probably make just about any Olympics profitable, or not. (Except Montreal. They took un bain.) It depends on how you account for the benefits of the building left behind. If the Olympic Village is used for housing or college dorms (I think one site turned their Village into a prison), then how to account for the benefit of that over time?

It's like a movie. There are accountants who can tell you no movie ever made money. That's why people always ask for points of the gross, not the net.

whet moser said...

Brilliant conspiracy theory; the line about sunsets is also totally perfect.

Bill said...

If the media is right, you couldn't switch your votes -- in the second and third rounds, the only people who got to vote were those in the eliminated city. So, after round 1, the 18 who voted for Chicago got to vote, virtually all of whom went for Rio. Then, the Tokyo supporters got to vote after Tokyo was eliminated.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Bill, I don't think that's true. It's a secret ballot and you can vote for whomever you want in each round, I believe. The proof is in the numbers. Tokyo got two fewer votes in the second round than they did in the first. Since everybody who voted for Tokyo in round one was also eligible in round two, then at least two IOC members (and maybe more--two presumes NONE of the Chicago votes went to Tokyo in round two) either switched their vote or took a smoke break.

This is the idlest kind of speculation, obviously. For entertainment purposes only.

Bill said...

I thought about it some more, and what I said wouldn't matter anyway, because in the end the "faux-Tokyo-actual-Rio" voters get to vote again, so your theory works regardless. Eric Zorn of the Tribune explained how it worked-- in the second round the Chicago voters gave their second choice; in the third round, the Tokyo voters gave their second choice (or third choice, if the second had been Chicago). But since the vote tallies in the second round had Tokyo dropping (and apparently one more vote cast than in the first round), he must have been mistaken, and all folks could change their vote.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Bill, I think you've described exactly how it's supposed to work in theory: In the first round, everyone votes their first choice. In the second round, Madrid, Rio, and Tokyo voters would vote again for those cities while the Chicago voters (and newly eligible voters from the US) would vote their second choice. Clearly in this case, some number of IOC members did not vote their first choice in the first round. Were just speculating why that is.

I suspect it's a method of trying to game the system (and this is probably not the first time it's been done). And I'm not suggesting anything was done outside IOC rules. That's just the nature of the secret ballot.