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The sport of protest

Resistance to the Olympics coming to Chicago

Chris Mansour

Platypus Review 15 | September 2009

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NO GAMES CHICAGO WAS FOUNDED in the summer of 2008 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Chicago was among the bid cities for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The group’s aim is to prevent Chicago from hosting the games—nothing more, nothing less. The reason for this opposition is No Games Chicago’s claim that, if Chicago wins the bid to host the Olympics, the city’s working class would bear the bulk of the costs. They substantiate their claim by pointing to the experience of previous host cities, the lack of transparency in the decision process within Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago Bid Committee, and economic statistics that show Chicago is already too financially strained to host the games.

Certainly, No Games Chicago is right to highlight the experience of other host cities, as previous Olympic bids have been rife with administrative duplicity, including back-room deals, frivolous spending, and financial maneuvers that favor big businesses at the public’s expense.[1] It is evident from recent Olympics history that the Games tend to bring more problems than benefits to host cities. Nor is there any particular reason to imagine, as  No Games Chicago rightly insists, that the 2016 Olympics in Chicago will be any different from the past and current experience of other host cities. As the world is now experiencing a financial crisis, No Games Chicago argues that it is even more imperative for the city of Chicago to be careful with how money is spent. Additionally, they emphasize that Mayor Richard Daley’s fiscal irresponsibility, legacy of corruption, and lack of concern for public welfare would only be amplified if the Games were to be hosted through his office. The Olympics would most likely lose—not raise—revenue for the host city, though many of Mayor Daley’s crony contractors would make a killing before the spending bonanza ended.

It is true that Chicago’s ability to finance and support the Olympics without overburdening taxpayers is highly suspect, as is the political capacity of Chicago’s democracy to oppose hosting the games.[2] Before recently reversing on the issue, City Alderman Manny Flores raised public skepticism regarding Chicago’s ability to host the 2016 Games in a manner commensurate with the city’s other needs. Flores’s call for greater transparency and a cap on total city spending for the games echo, and were almost certainly influenced by No Games Chicago, which has retained its stance of “unconditional resistance” to the Olympics Games being held in Chicago, despite Flores’s change of heart.[3]

But if No Games Chicago is truly not against the Olympic Games per se, as they claim, is it not misguided to center the attack on the Olympics rather than the conditions that create the problems experienced by host cities? Do they not risk addressing the symptom while doing nothing to eliminate the disease? As it is, if the Olympics are stopped from coming to Chicago through the actions of No Games Chicago—and they will likely claim responsibility if Chicago does not receive the bid, whatever the reasons—this cannot be counted as a total victory. The absence of the Olympics in Chicago will only burden another city with the same problems that Chicago avoided, while doing little to make the broader changes necessary to ensure these problems do not arise in the future. Where is a vision of how Chicago—or any other city—could host the 2016 Games without adversely effecting the working class? It is worrisome that because of its self-limitations No Games Chicago will likely have little impact on the larger, long-term fight in Chicago for greater political and social freedom, because No Games Chicago never squarely addresses this greater fight.

The socioeconomic problems that coincide with hosting the Olympics are felt across the globe in every city. Yet, there seems to be no real solidarity between No Games Chicago and similar movements elsewhere, leaving Chicagoans to fight for themselves. Indeed, it remains unclear to what extent there exists any real desire to extend support to other cities. Rather, the consensus position seems to be simply negationist.

Granted, in part, No Games Chicago can only take on the tasks of organizing and protesting as fast as the other cities move and organize themselves. But there is no development of a coherent language in No Games Chicago beyond the local self-interest of keeping the Olympic Games out of Chicago. It is troublesome to hear Tom Tresser, one of the chief organizer’s of the group, say on Chicago Tonight, a local television news show, “We [No Games Chicago] say take the games somewhere else,”[4] and to read Ben Joravsky ask the IOC, in an open letter published in Chicago Reader, to “please do us all a favor: Give the games to Rio. Or Madrid. Or Tokyo. Send them anywhere but here.”[5] The concern over the social problems caused by the Olympic Games does not seem to extend beyond Chicago.

It is ironic that the prospect of the Olympics coming to Chicago—a series of games meant to bring about an international, shared experience of athleticism to the world’s citizens—has sparked such an insular protest politics. Throughout their public statements, protest actions, and outreach to other Chicago-based political and community groups, No Games Chicago’s chief concern has been to raise awareness of all the things that are wrong with Chicago. But, after demanding “better hospitals, housing, schools, and trains” instead of the Olympics, there has been little attempt to actually address the root causes of these problems, much less to begin considering how they might be overcome. Without any vision for the future of how Chicago could become a city that can and should host colossal international events, No Games Chicago will likely remain a venue for angry complaints with little ability to move beyond Chicago or to make positive change after this single issue is settled, one way or the other. In order to fulfill its goals, No Games Chicago would have to change its goals. It would have to substantially redirect its operations and rhetoric towards future goals beyond simply halting the 2016 Summer Olympics bid. Otherwise, it will continue to remain a fixture of protest culture with no positive program beyond riling up local citizens to achieve a hollow sense of empowerment. At best, it will successfully deflect misfortune away from Chicago to another city.

The lack of ambition to be found in No Games Chicago has become an altogether usual problem for movements that consider themselves “progressive.” Far too often, activists concentrate on the moment of “resistance,” as if this will automatically help change things for the better. Solely resisting political maneuvers in the system cannot substitute for an alternative programmatic view for the future, which is where the real struggle for change begins. Resistance—or protest—as an end in itself typifies the helplessness and powerlessness of so-called activists in our time. Although movements like No Games Chicago maintain a sense of urgency for the necessity of social and political change, the lack of vision in how to organize themselves towards these overarching goals means that their resistance can never make the leap into emancipation. In effect, No Games Chicago, like other single-issue protest groups, ends up mirroring the activities of the Olympics: The act of protesting turns into a sport that has little to no bearing outside the immediate outcome of the game. If there is a true will to overcome this demoralized state, protest groups must envision their actions as a means to organize toward goals that go beyond mere resistance. |P


[1]. For all the evidence No Games Chicago has compiled, see <nogameschicago.com>. For a better organized and supposedly more objective approach to the issue, see London’s Games Monitor at <gamesmonitor.org.uk>.

[2]. To see in-depth accounts and research on the economic difficulties of hosting the Olympic Games, see <nogames.wordpress.com/truth>.

[3]. For an account of Flores’s original opposition, see <nogames.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/alderman/#more-1131>. About his recent change in position, see Ben Joravsky, “Who’ll Be the Bad Guy Now? Manny Flores Backs Away from the Cap he Proposed on Public Funding for the Olympics,” Chicago Reader, August 12, 2009, <chicagoreader.com/chicago/wholl-be-the-bad-guy-now/Content?oid=1176781>.

[4]. Tom Tresser, interview by Eddie Arruza, Chicago Tonight, WTTW, April 6, 2009, <wttw.com/main.taf?p=42,8,8&vid=040609b>.

[5]. Ben Joravsky, “An Open Letter to the IOC,” Chicago Reader, April 2, 2009, <chicagoreader.com/chicago/an-open-letter-to-the-ioc/Content?oid=1098601>.

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