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Sportswriter Dave Zirin on Obama’s Olympic Error

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As President Obama lobbies the International Olympic Committee to choose Chicago for the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Dave Zirin looks at why Chicago may not want to be the host city. Zirin argues Olympic Games have economically hurt cities in the past. And he writes, “To greater or lesser degrees, the Olympics bring gentrification, graft and police violence wherever they nest.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: At the time that this broadcast went on the air, the IOC is about to announce its decision for the site of the 2016 Olympic Games. It’s choosing between Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.

President Obama flew to Copenhagen overnight and went directly to the IOC session and made his play for his adopted home town of Chicago.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I come here today as a passionate supporter of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as a strong believer in the movement they represent and as a proud Chicagoan. But above all, I come as a faithful representative of the American people, and we look forward to welcoming the world to the shores of Lake Michigan and the heartland of our nation in 2016.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama is the first American president to attend the IOC vote to promote a bid. He was the final speaker of a ten-person team that included Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and First Lady Michelle Obama, who said she took inspiration from watching the Olympics as a child.

    MICHELLE OBAMA: Sports taught me self-confidence, teamwork and how to compete as an equal. Sports were a gift I shared with my dad, especially the Olympic Games. Some of my best memories are sitting on my dad’s lap, cheering on Olga and Nadia, Carl Lewis and others for their brilliance and perfection.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today’s presentation by the US delegation capped an intense lobbying effort over the past few months. According to the New York Times, President Obama taped five video messages pitching Chicago’s bid. He created an Olympic office within the White House and hosted Olympic athletes on the South Lawn. For the past couple of weeks, he worked the phones, called some heads of state, and lobbied others at the United Nations opening session in New York and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last week.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House has said the Olympic Games would showcase the United States and provide a “tangible economic benefit” to the city of Chicago.

But not everyone agrees. Sportswriter Dave Zirin says, to the contrary, the Olympic Games have economically hurt cities. And he writes, “To greater or lesser degrees, the Olympics bring gentrification, graft and police violence wherever they nest.”

Well, Dave Zirin joins us now from Washington, DC, author of a number of books about politics and sports, his latest, A People’s History of Sports in the United States. He’s a regular contributor to The Nation magazine and writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.”

Dave Zirin, welcome to Democracy Now! You say that this is Obama’s Olympic error. Why?

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely it’s Obama’s Olympic error, because Obama is writing checks with his mouth that the facts do not cash. There’s an old expression in politics that everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. If Barack and Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and Mayor Richard Daley, if they’re of the opinion that the Olympics will bring untold prestige to the city of Chicago, OK, great, that’s their opinion. But if they want to spread the fact that it will bring this tangible economic benefit to Chicago, that it’ll benefit the people of Chicago, that is just a fact that is not borne out by anything in Olympic history.

And I have to speak about the irony of Michelle Obama, who’s from the South Side of Chicago, talking about what a gift the Olympics would be, given the fact that the people of the South Side of Chicago will be at absolute ground zero of Olympic construction, police repression, gentrification and graft, which will accompany the Olympic Games.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Dave, what about some of these past factual examples? Obviously, the Olympics have been here in the United States several times, in Atlanta, Los Angeles, as well as in other parts of the world. What’s been some of the results, after the cameras left and after the athletes left some of these cities?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I don’t know about you, but I never take my kids out and say, “Hey, let’s go out and do a fun luge, or what do you say we go out and do some synchronized swimming?” And that’s part of the problem, is that these facilities get built that have no real use after the cameras have gone and people have gone home. And what places are left with is debt.

I mean, let’s — we could go down the list, chapter and verse, on this. But China, for example, they spent as high, according to the LA Times, as $42 billion to get their Olympics there. My favorite example — not favorite — but Athens, Greece, they went 1,000 percent over budget in Athens. That defies my knowledge of math that they went a thousand percent over budget. The city of Montreal, 1976 Olympics, they finished paying off their debt in 2006. It took thirty years to do it.

And the problem is that the budget projections never meet reality. And what you get instead is just this terrible repression in the cities. You get these facilities that are built that have no real use. And you get a kind of corruption that always follows the Olympics wherever they go. And I got to say, whether you’re talking about Chicago or, frankly, Rio, for that matter, as well, graft, the destruction of public housing, and police violence, I mean, these cities have raised those things to an art form, and I would hate to think what the Olympics would bring, as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things that’s happened in recent years is that promoters of the Olympics who realize some of the problems with this government financing have been promising that the money will be raised privately, that the local government —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- won’t have to spend much of its own money. What’s your — what are the facts, in terms of those claims?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, the facts are this. Private sector can only do so much. Like, for example, just to take Chicago as an example, they’ve promised $4.8 billion has been raised privately, and that’s all it would take to put on the Games. The problem is that that would be an exceptionally low number, first of all. I mean, $4.8 billion would only pay for the Games in Shangri-La; it would not happen in the real world.

And the city council of Chicago voted unanimously, after much arm-twisting from Richard Daley, that they would take up any cost overruns, which is why 84 percent of the city of Chicago opposes the Olympics, if it means any kind of cost overruns or any kind of hand in their pocket for tax dollars. And you go down the list, it’s always over budget, with very few exceptions. I mean, Los Angeles 1984 is a lone exception in the history of the Olympics, where you have these huge cost overruns that the city or the state or the country then has to make up.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, the issue of police repression?

DAVE ZIRIN: We have to talk about this, because it’s a very uncomfortable topic, but — and I know you’ve talked about it on Democracy Now! a great deal — but the horrible stories of police murder in Brazil or the terrible stories of the death row torture scandals in the state of Illinois, which led to the commutation of the death row by the former Governor George Ryan. I mean, these things happen for a reason. It happened because police brutality is a reality in these places anyway. When the Olympics come, it becomes much worse.

And it’s not just about the police. The favorite paramilitary organization of Democracy Now! viewers, Blackwater, has been a feature at the recent Olympic Games. They patrolled the streets in 2004 in Athens. And without question, they would be under contract if the Games were in the United States. And people have to think about what that would mean, an unaccountable police force roaming the streets to make the city safe for the Olympic Games.

And we’ve seen what this means, in country after country after country. I mean, the worst example, of course, is 1968, the Mexico City Games, where 500 students and workers were killed in a massacre at Tlatelolco Square. And we now know from declassified government documents from Mexico that this was done to make the city presentable for the Olympic Games, that there was a fear that a rising tide of protest would interfere with the Olympic Games.

But that wasn’t just a Mexico City issue. I mean, if you name a place where the Olympics were, I could tell a horror story about what it’s meant to have police there who just were known that there were no rules and that they could do whatever they had to do to make the city safe for the Olympics.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the powers in all of these cities that lobby for these Games. Who wants them in their city? I mean, in Nagano — is this right? — the Winter Olympics, they burned their records.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, they burn their records in a lot of places. They burned the records in Atlanta, as well. I mean, you always have a destruction of the records afterwards to find out what actually was done. And the head of the Atlanta bid, a gentleman by the name of Billy Payne — I mean, it’s interesting you said the thing about some people benefit, perhaps, from the Olympics coming. One of the jokes out of Atlanta in 1996 was that the person who benefited the most was Billy Payne, because he got membership at Augusta National Golf Club. The other joke coming out of Atlanta in 1996 was that the only project that was built on time and under budget was the prison that was built specifically for the Olympic Games.

But, no, corruption and graft are as a part of the Olympics as apple pie. I mean, there was even a huge corruption scandal when the Winter Games came to Salt Lake City. I mean, in Utah, for goodness’ sake! So you had a deep amount of corruption even there. But everywhere you go, I mean, it’s a system of bribery, it’s a system of graft. They’ve tried to do reforms in the International Olympic Committee, but only because the stories of hookers and drugs and perks and benefits. Like in Salt Lake City, they had to — they found out that someone had illegally bought a thousand dollars’ worth of Viagra for an International Olympic Committee official for the portion of his stay. I mean, this is the kind of people we’re talking about. This is the kind of, quote-unquote, “business” we’re talking about. And it really is something that’s as dirty as the day is long.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, the issue of land development, because, obviously, in all of these Olympic Games, you have to erect new structures, you have to erect housing, and you usually have to clear away a portion of a city that formerly was used by its residents for other purposes. How does land development and real estate developers play in your examination of previous Games in other parts of the world?

DAVE ZIRIN: This is what I would say to Michelle Obama if she was here right now. I would say, “Mrs. Obama, how much would you have liked the Olympics in Chicago, if you still lived there and you actually had to leave your home because of fair use laws to make Olympic Village or to make a new Olympic stadium?” That’s the disconnect of why I call this “Obama’s Olympic error,” by the way.

But everywhere you go in the Olympics, chapter and verse, you see that kind of displacement. The most grotesque example was Beijing, where two million people were displaced from the capital city and where people were arrested and got indeterminate jail sentences for passing around petitions that literally said — this is what the petitions said — they said, “Please don’t kick me out of my home.” And that petition was against the law. It was seen as an embarrassment to the Olympic effort. But it’s not a Beijing issue, it’s not a totalitarian China issue. I mean, 30,000 units of public housing in Atlanta were destroyed. In Los Angeles, people were out of house and home.

And ironically, one of the ways that Chicago is selling its bid is that this displacement has largely already taken place in Chicago. The Robert Taylor projects, Cabrini-Green — you’ve already had these huge housing developments that have been torn down to make way for gentrification in the city of Chicago over the last generation. And now they’re selling it as a way to say, “Hey, we’ve already displaced our people, so we can — we’re construction-ready.” So, I mean, it just speaks to one of the noxious — the noxious nature of the Olympic Games.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about the No Games Chicago organizer Alison McKenna talking about how much money, regardless if Chicago gets this, has already been spent and how much money Chicago is losing right now or — in layoffs and cutbacks.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, and it’s worth saying that my sister lives in Chicago. My beautiful niece and nephew live in Chicago. It’s a city that’s very dear to me. So, to me, this whole movement and what people like Alison McKenna are talking about, it’s about a movement of people who love Chicago, who are trying to defend Chicago, defend a city that’s $500 million in debt right now.

And yet, they keep saying that they have extra money for the Olympic Games. And it’s such an interesting thing, because when people in Chicago, like Alison McKenna, say, “Where’s the money for schools? Where’s the money for social services?” they’re told, again and again and again, “The money is not there. This is a recession. We have deficits.” And yet, when it comes to the Olympics, Richard Daley — it’s like underneath his carpet. He’s like, “Hey, wait! Another $500 million! Great! This is now part of our bid.” And they keep finding money when it comes to the Olympics.

And that has to do with the power of the real estate lobby in Chicago. It has to do with the power of developers in Chicago. And it has to do with the power of the Daley political machine in Chicago. That’s what protesters there are up against. And their task is urgent, because I really do think it affects all of us, coast to coast.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, I want to thank you for being with us. He’s author of a number of books — his latest, A People’s History of Sports in the United States — a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, has a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.”

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