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Chicago’s long Olympic wait

Times Staff Writer

All the elements of calamity seemed to be converging through the day and afternoon, creating a sense of unease among organizers.

Certainly, one severe cold snap and a sidekick snowstorm wouldn’t be enough to derail the city’s Olympic bid for the 2016 Summer Games. But how would vacant stands at an international wrestling event at Northwestern University look on promotional videos?

No worries.

After all, this is the Midwest, home of the brave and the sometimes crazed. This is where you can find bare-chested Bears fans in below-freezing weather, and people who hardly give a thought to hopping in a car and driving through a snowstorm to see a high school hockey game.

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So it was not a big surprise to see a near-capacity crowd of 8,000 make it to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the recent Chicago Cup ’07, the first significant event of the newly formed World Sport Chicago organization. Alert little kids huddled near press row, positioned better to chase down the likes of wrestling’s homegrown hero Lindsey Durlacher and the crowd-pleasing Mo Lawal.

Call it legacy building.

“We’re definitely taking steps in the right directions to bring the Olympics to Chicago,” Durlacher said. “If they do one or two of these a year in Chicago, then we can do it. We can win that bid.”

Ah, the bid. It’s no coincidence the awakened interest in amateur sports comes at a time when Chicago stands closer to playing host to the Games than it has in more than 100 years.

It was 1904, to be exact, when the city was to be host of the Summer Olympics but events, namely the World’s Fair, led to the Games’ being moved to St. Louis. In the end, those Games were widely considered a flop -- the greatness diluted by being spread out over 4 1/2 months.

Today, 4 1/2 months is merely a snapshot in the long and winding campaign to win the Olympics. Chicago and Los Angeles are the remaining candidates in the domestic race and the United States Olympic Committee will decide between the cities on April 14.

The international portion of the bid competition, which could include the likes of Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Madrid and Doha, Qatar, will conclude when the International Olympic Committee makes its selection in 2009.

“We’re about 10 minutes through the first quarter,” Chicago bid chairman Patrick G. Ryan said, speaking in a recent interview in his downtown office at Aon Corp., the Fortune 500 company he founded.

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Ryan, who was tapped by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to head the bid committee, also owns 20% of the Bears. And his presence on the committee lent immediate credibility and packs a powerful fundraising punch.

In a short period, they have raised in excess of the $25 million required by the USOC. That amount is due to swell by several million after an fundraising event on March 1 at McCormick Place, the proposed site of the main press center as well as a key competition venue for many sports.

About 1,500 are expected to attend the event, days before a USOC Evaluation Committee arrives for a visit.

“We have all the money we need to satisfy the USOC, satisfy our needs, but when you’ve got 2 1/2 years to go, you basically should keep raising money because there’s just things that will unfold,” Ryan said.

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The business community’s strong response is a reflection of Ryan’s influence. A Chicago Tribune business reporter said in a radio interview last year that “people have a very hard time saying no” to Ryan. And Laurence Msall, president of the government watchdog organization Civic Federation, echoed that general sentiment.

“Pat Ryan’s leadership has drawn just a first-class pool of executives and civic leaders to go forward with this bid,” Msall said.

“To date, everything has been about the potential to privately fund the [Olympic] village, and the mayor has said no city tax dollars are anticipated.”

The Olympic Village’s cost has been put at $1.1 billion, to be built on the truck staging area near McCormick Place and paid for by developers, who will turn the village into residential housing after the Games end.

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“It’s the missing tooth along the lakefront,” said Thomas Kerwin, partner of the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP. “The lakefront is developed north and south of this. But this is really an eyesore right now.”

Meanwhile, plans have changed regarding the Olympic Stadium. The slightly smaller temporary stadium, to be located in vast Washington Park on the city’s South Side, will cost an estimated $366 million. This includes costs to construct it and to take it down, leaving an amphitheater with a seating capacity of about 5,000.

The pros and cons of Chicago and Los Angeles greatly differ. Los Angeles has the necessary legacy requirements, and Chicago is still in its infancy. However, Chicago has the newness factor working and a compactness that highlights the lakefront and attractive city skyline.

University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson said that if the only issue were cost, the Summer Games should be held in Los Angeles, since only one venue would need to be built. He also doesn’t trust the cost figures being bandied about by Chicago, pointing out the rapidly escalating costs for the upcoming Summer Games in Beijing and in London.

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“What I object to is the continued low-balling of how much it’s going to cost,” Sanderson said, calling it a slow rollout.

Said Doug Arnot, director of sports and operations for Chicago’s bid: “I have high, high confidence in the numbers. We’ve gone to preliminary design in the stadium, gone out to the structural engineers, gone to the steel suppliers, gone to the contractors. The approach is what got us there.

“The plan is very solid. I had medium confidence in October. I was feeling pretty good by December, and by the time we rolled things out in January, I was very, very pleased.”

This feeling is shared by Ryan, who is educating himself in all aspects of the Olympic movement. Someone noticed the copy in his office of “Lord of the Rings,” written by two IOC critics.

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“It’s worth reading, but so is the other one,” Ryan said.

The other, next to it, was “Made in America.” The author? None other than USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth, architect of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

lisa.dillman@latimes.com


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