Chicago Olympics' opening ceremonies would have been this week
Did we lose out or luck out?
It could have been here. And it could have started this week.
Chicago hoped to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, holding most events downtown and a few in the suburbs -- the equestrian competitions would have been at Tempel Farms in Wadsworth and the shooting sports at a range outside Aurora.
By now, the Olympic torch would have arrived. Opening ceremonies would have been Friday. But Chicago was eliminated early in the 2009 site-selection process in spite of wooing of the International Olympic Committee by Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Obamas, Oprah Winfrey, a host of former Olympic and Paralympic athletes and many others.
Instead, Rio de Janeiro will host the games starting Aug. 5.
As the world watches Rio struggle with major problems like financing, pollution and the Zika virus, it raises the question: wouldn't Chicago have been a better choice?
And by losing out on the games, did Chicago and the suburbs miss out on a great opportunity? Or did we luck out?
"It was a letdown in some ways, but also a relief," said Esther Buonanno, program director at Tempel Farms, echoing the mixed feelings many have locally about Chicago's unsuccessful bid.
The 2016 Olympics in Chicago had potential to be lucrative and prestigious, providing new facilities and infrastructure that would have remained long after the games. But it also could have been a financial disaster, racking up unforeseen bills for an already debt-ridden city and state.
Many cities around the world are still paying off millions of dollars from Olympics-related projects. And it was reported last week that Chicago has been unable to sell the $91 million former Michael Reese Hospital campus it bought with the hopes of building an Olympic Village to hold 15,000 athletes in housing units that later were to be sold or rented.
Chicago's $4 billion Olympic bid included an 80,000-seat stadium and new swimming pools in Washington Park, a man-made river with white-water rapids near Northerly Island, a BMX track in Douglas Park and other facilities that residents could have enjoyed long after the games ended. The Olympics also would have generated millions of dollars for the local economy, and that doesn't include the postgames tourism organizers hoped would result from Chicago being showcased to a TV audience of billions around the world.
Chicago and suburban residents even spoke hopefully of reaping a windfall from renting out their homes to tourists during the games.
But 2016 has been a year of violence, racial tension and budget nightmares in Chicago. The games would have brought inconveniences, too, including expressway lanes that would have been reserved for Olympics traffic for the duration, drastically worsening congestion that's already at its peak in summer.
In the suburbs, the Tempel Farms and Tempel Lipizzans staff would have had to vacate the 4,000-acre farm for several months while new temporary buildings and arenas were built for the games, including an 18,000-seat stadium. Traffic on the two-lane Hunt Club Road and on-site parking would have been obstacles.
Yet, Buonanno admits she was still disappointed not to host the games. The international exposure would have added to Tempel Farms' prestige and been a treat for Chicago-area equestrian fans. Most regrettably, Buonanno said, a new veterinary clinic, stocked with pricey surgical equipment, would have been built at Tempel Farms and it would have remained long after the games were over.
"That would have been nice, because there is no veterinary clinic around here," Buonanno said. "It really was an exciting proposition (to host the Olympics). And there was great pride in the opportunity to host it here. But there was also the reality of it."
That feeling extends to Visit Lake County, the county's convention and visitors bureau. President Maureen Riedy estimates the Olympics would have brought 45,000 additional visitors to Lake County, generating $14 million for the local economy.
"It would have been prestigious and put us on a world stage," Riedy said.
But it also would have displaced locals and visitors to Lake County in the heart of summer tourism season, especially at places like Six Flags Great America in Gurnee and outdoor recreation areas, she said.
"It would have been a challenge to handle all of that," Riedy added. "Hotel occupancies are around 80 percent in July and August, so people would have been displaced. In general, I think everyone would have stepped up. But the reality is, given the (state) budget situation, it probably was a good thing."
It was definitely a missed opportunity, says William Scherr, a former Olympic wrestler and president of World Sport Chicago, the group behind Chicago's 2016 bid.
Scherr strongly believes Chicago would have been the best choice for the 2016 games and the region and its residents would have benefitted in many ways, especially economically. He noted that the local organizing committees in U.S. host cities have profited from the games in recent years and Los Angeles is still using money it made in the 1984 games to fund youth sports and other causes.
Plus, Scherr said, many of the facilities would have been long-lasting assets to the city. He even believes the games, billed as the biggest thing locally since Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, might have helped unite people.
"I have no doubt we would have pulled the games off, and it would have been a rallying point for this city," he said. "That would be a positive thing beyond economic."
Chicago's Olympic dreams aren't entirely dead. While Los Angeles, home of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Games, has been designated as the U.S. city to bid for the games in 2024, Scherr said there's a possibility Chicago could make another run for the games in the future.
"Who knows what will happen?" Scherr said. "I still feel Chicago is the best location in the U.S. for an Olympic bid, and I hope we get to try again one day."