Memories of a failed Olympic bid

Yesterday, about seven years after my first visit, I drank some very expensive coffee at the Intelligentsia store on Randolph Street in downtown Chicago. This seemingly simple act triggered a lot of complex memories about the time I spent on a failed bid to bring the Olympic Games to Chicago. I posted a photo about the coffee to social media, which in turn led to explaining why I enjoyed it so much. And that in turn led to some explanation to others about what I did during that time many years ago. I thought I’d write a bit more about it here.

From 2006 to 2012, I worked at a very large (Fortune 100) healthcare company based in the northern suburbs of Chicago. (Omitting its name from this story is a deliberate choice.) I had recently moved from managing the technical services pieces of the library at that company, to a job doing information architecture type stuff in the IT group within the library. My manager asked if I’d be willing to work with him on an exciting project to organize all of the information for Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. I said yes. This led to several months of intense effort, a lot of interesting experiences, meeting some high powered people, and more. It was quite an adventure.

But first, a bit of background. Olympic decision-making takes many years of preparation and planning just to get the opportunity to participate. The CEO of the company I worked for was one of the biggest corporate supporters of Chicago’s bid, and consequently, he involved a lot of company people in that support effort, particularly from the company’s main R&D division. Before I stepped into my role, my manager and my predecessor, through some connections to people in that R&D division, were invited to help with supporting Chicago’s bid among U.S. cities.  They were tasked with ensuring that all of the thousands of pieces of information, data, documentation, etc., were well organized and able to be quickly referenced during the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) review process. Chicago was ultimately chosen as the U.S. bid city. Fast forward a few years to when the U.S. bid was selected as a final candidate, and Chicago needed to compete with Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Madrid on the international stage. It was time to do the whole thing all over again. My predecessor had moved on to a different company by then, so this is where I came into the picture.

Keep in mind that this was at the peak of the first four years of the Obama administration, and Chicago is where Barack Obama — as we know him, politically, at least — was born and raised. Richard Daley was still Mayor of Chicago, and elements of the Chicago political world were taking over Washington. Chicago’s Olympic bid received personal attention from the highest levels of the Obama administration. The world, it seemed, was at Obama’s feet, and there was great hope that a U.S. bid with the city of Chicago would meet with resounding success. Looking back, I think it was more than hope, it was almost an assumption.

So then, what exactly was the small part I played? My manager and I hunkered down in the Aon Building (formerly the Standard Oil Building), the H.Q. of the Chicago bid, and over a period of several months, worked to bring as much information and data into a central place as possible to serve as a reference point for a visit by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The main purpose in doing this was to help the point people for each primary segment of the Chicago bid (e.g. Accommodations, Infrastructure, Paralympics) to be ready and able to answer any questions that might possibly be asked by the IOC during their visit. There is a huge amount of bureaucracy involved in an Olympic bid. Also, there are many different requirements and protocols to follow. One of the interesting lessons I learned is that there is an international cadre of people for whom preparing Olympic bids is their career. In other words, they are professional bid organizers/workers available for hire.

But more specifically, my manager and I had to figure out things such as: What would be the best way to organize all of this information and data? How should we assign roles and responsibilities? What methods could we employ to ensure compliance among the many people involved in the whole bid? What was the best solution for storing, indexing, and retrieving all of this data? How could we best coordinate efforts with other groups to provide the required IOC responses, in writing, during their site visit? What was the project timeline and what were the deliverables? And so on. It was high pressure stuff, and it seemed like we made things up as we went along. That is not to imply that what we did was haphazard and slapdash; far from it. But I felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants during the whole time. I learned a lot about how to exert influence and authority when in actual fact, I had none. This was particularly interesting to do when the people with whom you are trying to exert authority were senior business leaders and/or political and/or Olympic officials.

I learned a great deal about knowing when to give and when to stand firm; about clear communication, teamwork, and just plain ol’ stamina. Most of all, I affirmed that my librarianship skills are highly valuable and worthwhile, even in — or especially in — a radically non-library setting. During the actual IOC visit, we burned the proverbial midnight oil, working together with several other people to manage the process of providing formal responses to IOC questions. I observed how relationships, partnerships, and alliances were formed. The problem was that I don’t excel at political games and making oneself look good to get ahead. In an environment that was all about politics and managing perception, I was a fish out of water.

The only person I came away from the whole experience admiring was the person, a senior vice president, who was put in charge of overseeing our company’s support for the bid process. This was a person who was genuine, not at all showy or power hungry, kind, attentive, and supportive. He knew how to get things done, and they got done. He knew my name, and made time to chat. He answered his emails personally and promptly. He ensured that everyone on his whole team got recognized and felt a sense of accomplishment and reward. Come to think of it, he was one of a very few people I felt was truly worth his salt, at any management level, in my entire tenure at that company.

Other observations from my experience:

  • From where I sat, it appeared that the Chicago organizing committee and the USOC did not get along that well. It also didn’t help that the USOC and the IOC had their own big spat going on (relating to revenue sharing).
  • Overall, I think the whole package that the Chicago bid team put together was beautifully done and very compelling. I was proud of that. It was not at all easy to do.
  • Getting a small glimpse into the Chicago political machine was interesting.
  • Ultimately of course, the Chicago bid failed, and it failed badly (of the four candidate cities, Chicago was voted out first by the IOC). This, in spite of our belief that we had the strongest bid and that out of the four candidate cities, our main competition was Rio.
  • In retrospect, it seems to me that there was a stream of miscalculations along the way, and there is plenty of blame to spread around. But mostly, I think the U.S. completely misread the political winds that shape the IOC. Some of this, in my view, was due to pure hubris.
When I look at the state of the city of Chicago now — keep in mind that the incredibly bad financial situation we know about now was not nearly as well known back then when Daley was still in office — I think Chicago’s failure was for the best. Chicago would have made such a beautiful and vibrant place for the Games, but it seems now like a lucky escape. We knew, even back then, that Rio, the ultimate victor, was ripe with problems. And look at what has happened! With respect to Brazil, I do not see how the 2016 games could ever be considered a financial windfall for that country. In fact, I have soured completely on the whole Olympic selection process as well as the purported benefits that hosting an Olympic Games bring to the host country.
I have chalked the whole thing up to…experience.
Now, turning back to where I started, where does expensive coffee at Intelligentsia fit into the story? It was during my time working on the bid that I was first introduced to it, and sometimes I’d walk down the street from the Aon Building to sample the various coffee flavors at that particular store on Randolph. That, at least, is a happy memory.

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