High costs likely for Olympics in Chicago

The greatest show on Earth for the month of August was not Ringling Brothers. Billions around the world watched as the People’s Republic of China hosted the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. From the awe-inspiring opening ceremony to the passing of the torch to London, the economic powerhouse put on a global spectacle that has no precedent.

In fact, the Chinese government reportedly spent over $40 billion to upgrade Beijing’s infrastruture to accommodate the greatest athletes in the world and make the country a model of modern efficiency.

But while the world looks to London in 2012, Chicago remains in the running for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The real question Chicagoans face is precisely whether the massive event being held in the Windy City will also be known as the greatest show on earth, or just a big circus.

Mayor Richard Daley, a huge supporter of Chicago’s bid, has promised that no local taxpayer dollars will be spent on the event. Thus far, that’s true. Almost $50 million in bid costs have been covered by private donations. No doubt many of them from those with significant business interests in the games being held in the city.

Overall plans include $350 million for a brand new 80,000 seat stadium and $1.1 billion for an Olympic Village near McCormick place that organizers boast will put 88 percent of all athletes within 15 minutes of their competition.

Such an endeavor will probably be the recipient of billions of dollar for infrastructure improvements and security. Also likely to be added to the bill will be millions more in beautification projects and overtime pay for city workers.

While it’s likely costs will not come close to Bejing’s largesse, Chicago should take note of London’s budget so far. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that the total budget for the British games has quadrupled from initial estimates, now close to 18 billion in American dollars. This follows the pattern of Athens in 2004, which also went way over budget.

Of course, the other costs won’t be known until the games start. Beijing’s pollution and traffic problems were only alleviated by shutting down half the city. That’s easy to do in an authoritarian state but not so much here in America.

But will the international recognition of Chicago as a diverse and prosperous metropolis be worth the eventual cost?

It’s too soon to tell, but one thing’s for sure: It’ll be impossible to get Cubs or White Sox tickets if Chicago has the world as its guest.