Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
More importantly: Does a city get anything out of the exercise?
Had Chicago won the 2016 Summer Olympics, as many people in the city once felt certain it would, the region would be roughly at the halfway point now in preparations for the Games. Chicago would be constructing an 80,000-seat stadium on the South Side that could later be converted into a permanent (and much smaller) neighborhood asset. It would be redeveloping the area around the closed Michael Reese Hospital, connecting the street grid there for a walkable Olympic Village. It would be remodeling the downtown waterfront for use as a rowing venue.
It's interesting to look at all of these shelved plans now, three-and-a-half years after the International Olympic Committee gave Chicago's Games instead to Rio de Janeiro. Several dozen local architecture, planning, engineering and consulting firms spent more than three years sketching out proposals for the Olympics the city hoped to hold, all in an effort to bring that hypothetical to life for the IOC. Then nearly all of that work ceased to be relevant the morning of Oct. 2, 2009.
We often ask what Olympic cities really get in return for all the money, energy, and construction chaos invested in hosting the world's largest sporting event. But the story of cities that vie for but never win the Games raises a different question.
"What does putting together a bid that is unsuccessful leave you?" asks Sean Kinzie, an associate director with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago who worked full-time for three-and-a-half years on plans for some of the city's hopeful Olympic venues. He then pauses before fielding his own question. "I'm not sure I know the answer."
Kinzie pulled out all of those old architectural slides over the weekend – still with captions written in that hopeful future tense – for a panel on Olympic legacies at the American Planning Association's annual conference. Chicago is hosting the planning confab this week (the city may not have won the Olympics, but it got the APA!), and so it made sense to include Chicago in any talk of Olympic urban transformation. Kinzie, though, wound up awkwardly wedged with his unrealized Olympics between a speaker from London, which actually hosted the event, and another from Rio, which will.
Kinzie hasn't spent much time lingering over these sketches since 2009 ("There's plenty to do in this world," he says, "it’s very easy to move on quickly"). But their random reappearance this week is a reminder that this planning work doesn't evaporate when a city's chances of hosting do (some websites, however, do disappear).
"It’s out there. If the Park District ever wants to build that whitewater course on Northerly Island, we have plans for them," Kinzie says. "There’s this institutional historical knowledge that 'hey, remember that plan we did of Monroe Harbor years ago?'"
Does that count, though, as a legacy? Chicago is unlikely to ever want to build most of these venues in some other context. And because the city sold itself as already having already-intact transit and parks networks (a stark contrast from Rio), Chicago was never really working on dramatic infrastructure upgrades that might be welcome even without an Olympics. Another unsuccessful city, though, might find more civic improvements worth salvaging: a new rail line to the airport, for instance, or a park where one didn't previously exist.
The one exception in Chicago could be the Olympic Village. That's the piece of Olympic infrastructure that most easily translates into some other use, in the form of a dense, mixed-use neighborhood with new residences. Chicago will still inevitably redevelop the area around Michael Reese, and for that strategy, this vision could come in handy.
It's a giant civic exercise to envision an Olympics, and it's conceivable that government agencies and private firms might benefit in some less tangible way from that process of working together. Kinzie, though, was hesitant to conclude that the whole thing at least paid dividends in new partnerships within the city or consensus among people working to improve it. An Olympic bid brings people together, he says. But it also divides people. Every idea has dissenters.
So would he recommend this exercise to other cities?
"You do not do this unless you know you're going to win," he says. "It seems funny to say that, but to have that many hundreds of people working on it for three years – you don’t do that unless you know you’re going to win. You have to convince yourself."
Of course, you obviously know in the back of your mind there's a chance you might lose. But maybe that's not so different from planning for a development that may fall through, or designing a building that – for all kinds of reasons – may never get built.
Pyeongchang, South Korea, bid three times for the Winter Olympics before it finally won the right to host in 2018.
"It’s almost inconceivable that you would do that," Kinzie says. "Can you imagine working as hard as you can for three-and-a-half years on something, losing it, having to start all over, losing it again, and then starting all over again? That’s 12 years of your life."
Recycling a bid may be the simplest way to salvage it. Chicago, though, has no plans right now to try that.