Olympics

Editorial: How Rio cheated Chicago and won Olympic gold in corruption

How much did it cost to suck the air out of Chicago 10 years ago when the city was abruptly pushed out of the race to host the 2016 Summer Olympics?

About $2 million, according to Sergio Cabral, a jailed former governor of Rio de Janeiro state.

Cabral has been sentenced to 200 years for corruption of various types. He told a judge he learned Lamine Diack, then president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, was "open to undue advantages" and, through intermediaries, paid him $1.5 million for up to six votes for Rio, the Associated Press reports. Another $500,000 allegedly went to Diack's son for three more potential votes. Some of those alleged to have sold votes have denied the claims. Lamine Diack is also accused of other corruption charges that he denies.

Not that Chicagoans should be shocked, shocked by these allegations. The Olympics host-selection process has a history of being a hot mess. The latest accusations of bribery do resonate here. That's partly because the ambitious but failed bid for 2016 had far-reaching implications for Chicago – and partly because the notion of Chicago being too ethical to prevail provokes a lot of dark humor.

On Oct. 2, 2009, supporters gathered in Daley Plaza anticipating a triumphant morning as the International Olympic Committee gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark. Chicago was considered a favorite. Yet after the first round of voting, Chicago was out, its hopes deflated like a Patriots football.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, who might well have stayed in office to shepherd Olympics preparations, instead announced a year later he would not run again, paving the way for Rahm Emanuel to lead the city for eight years. Daley had locked in long, lucrative union contracts to ensure labor peace through the Olympics, financial obligations the city had to meet amid massive budget deficits. The city had also bought the former Michael Reese Hospital property for $140 million, with plans to build an Olympic Village that could later be repurposed into residences. The land still sits fallow.

And what felt like a unique moment in time to pursue the Games was lost. Chicago had President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan on its side, and a strong business presence led by Chicago 2016 chairman Pat Ryan.

For Rio, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Prominent leaders went to jail and the press wasn't good. Raw sewage contaminated water where athletes were to compete. There was an outbreak of the Zika virus. President Dilma Rousseff had been impeached. An IOC official complained that it was the worst runup to the Games he'd ever seen. Cry us a filthy river.

A Tribune poll at the time of the decision showed Chicagoans split on whether they supported the bid or not. Those who opposed it got what they wanted: billions of dollars not spent on the Olympics. Others relished the idea of celebrating athleticism, spurring development and showcasing Chicago's sparkling lakefront architecture to a global audience. They have heard enough out of the Brazilian courts to console themselves that the stinging loss didn't mean their city or their efforts weren't worthy.

If Cabral's story is true, somebody simply knew somebody who could be bought for the right price, and it changed the course of Chicago. While athletes stretched to reach new heights, politicians flexed only to extend palms for greasing. It's not a new story. This city is just accustomed to grifters who hold office closer to home.

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