"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood ... Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."  
—Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1864-1912)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The anthropologist in the Olympic Stadium

When John MacAloon began his research on the Olympics, past scholarship amounted to little more than a box of files in a room. Since then, he has published articles on the origins of the Olympic Movement, advised the International Olympic Committee, and sat on several bid committees and organizing committees.

He discusses the ideology behind the Olympic Movement, eminent domain, and why you won’t be renting out your South Side apartment during the Games:

Rachel Cromidas: You’re a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. How did you join Chicago 2016, the city’s bid committee?

John MacAloon: It’s more that the committee joined me. I’ve been working as an Olympics researcher, activist and consultant for about over 30 years now, and when Chicago decided to bid for the Olympics I was one of the few people in town who knew anything about the process.

RC: When you began your research on the Olympics, there was very little existing scholarship on the subject of the Olympic Movement.

JM: When I started, the Olympic Movement was not centralized. My PhD dissertation was a biography of the founder of the Olympic Games, and the story of origins of the Olympic Movement. There had been no such document until I wrote one, other than strict sports history, like who won the 200 meters in 1912, which is not what I do. Many Americans don’t know that the ritual system of the Olympics is by many measures as important as the sports system, because that’s where the ideology of the Olympic Movement comes in.

I study the Olympics as something that ought to be impossible, according to the field of anthropology. [the study of cultural difference]. If cultural differences are so important, then how is it that 205 national cultures and literally uncountable subcultures manage to come together every four years to interact and engage and cooperatively compete? That’s an astonishing achievement, and precisely what the Olympics are designed to demonstrate.

But if you think the Olympics is just sports event, then who cares, what’s the big deal? We’ve got plenty of sports events. But its not that, its absolutely not just that.

RC: What distinguishes the Olympic Movement from the Olympic Games?

JM: The difference is really important to understand if you want to understand what Chicago’s bid is about. Olympic sport is not like other sport. First of all, it’s not like professional baseball. If I ask you to tell me what’s the ideology of professional baseball, or what’s the ideology of NCAA Final Four, or what’s the ideology of the World Cup, you would struggle to answer. But you can tell me something about the opening ceremony of the Olympics. For most Olympics, the opening ceremony is far more important than an individual sports event. That’s because Olympic sport is sport in the service of international education, intercultural understanding, peace, d├ętente, youth development, social justice. We Americans don’t really understand that.

RC: What makes the opening ceremony so important?

JM: Basically, to be considered “a nation among nations” requires marching in the opening ceremony or being a part of the United Nations. And there are more territories, countries, that march in the opening ceremonies than members of the UN—and that is for certain peoples of the world absolutely critical. For example, Puerto Rico appears as nation among nations only in Olympic sport, and its autonomy becomes dependent on Olympic sport. The Games are not everything of course, but in part, because Puerto Rico would lose its independent Olympic team, a referendum on statehood cannot win there.

RC: Do you think local opposition to the Olympic bid has been centered on the idea that we don’t need more sports games in the city?

JM: Some of it obviously has been. But if you’ve never experienced [the Olympics] directly, if you think watching NBC is the Olympics, then you are sadly benighted.

In Germany, until fairly recently, Olympism was taught in every school as the most important social movement of the 20th century after socialism and feminism. That’s a statement that makes no sense to the majority of Americans. They’ve never heard of Olympism, and there’s no tradition even in higher education of teaching this.

There’s also the Cultural Olympiad, which is another ritual of holding the Games. It is a major, four-year festival of arts and culture and education, which I will be leading for Chicago if we get the Games. You don’t hear about this on NBC.

RC: What do you think makes Chicago a more equipped city than the other candidates [Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo] to host the Olympics?

I’m not just working on this bid because this is my city and my city needed me. This is a city made for the Olympics. It’s because of those parks and because of the Burnham Plan. It’s because we are the only city in the world in which the finest real estate is owned by the people. Our ability to put the [temporary and permanent] sports facilities in the parks, by the lake, means we don’t displace a single person; we won't use eminent domain to take somebody’s business or somebody’s neighborhood. And our Olympic Village goes on an empty space, [Michael Reese Hospital]. All of that makes us profoundly different than other bids.

RC: Eminent domain aside, I have heard community members voice concerns that rising rents will displace the poorer residents of Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, and other South Side neighborhoods surrounding the proposed locations of the Olympic Stadium and Aquatic Center.

JM: Research tells us that whatever is happening in terms of property values or gentrification in the venue neighborhoods will be virtually unchanged by anything having to do with the Olympics.

Those worries [about displacement] are driven by people’s fantasies, not there fears. People think, “Oh great, for 17 days there’s going to be a huge crowd on the South Side. I’ll rent my apartment!” These people don’t know anything. If anyone coming to Chicago for the Olympics is very rich and renting places, they’re not renting your Hyde Park student apartment. And the people who are coming to work here are construction workers who are not renting.

RC: Is it also a fantasy that the Olympics would revitalize these neighborhoods?

JM: Yes. If you think that other than what is already going on that there will be a ton of business development on the South Side because of the Olympics, you don’t know anything. Of course, there is a major revitalization project in the Olympic Village. There, you will have a major new neighborhood on the South Side that is committed to being 30 percent affordable housing.

RC: What about the speculation that the University of Chicago is buying property in Washington Park in hopes that property values will rise after the Olympics?

JM: The University buying property in Washington Park has been an issue for the past 30 years, and it will continue to be an issue for the next 30. There have been discussions with the University and [Chicago 2016] about repurposing some parking lots near the park, but the notion that University is now buying property because of the Olympics…? What planet are people on? The Olympics are not about economic capital.

RC: Does the University stand to benefit from the Olympics in other ways?

JM: Of course. Think about this: If Chicago gets the Olympics, how many people would ever wonder again if we were the University of Illinois at Chicago? How many North Siders and suburbanites that have never been to the south side will be looking here?

John MacAloon is an associate dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago, where he teaches in the College, and director of the Social Sciences Master of Arts Program. He sits on the Chicago 2016 Bid Committee. This interview has been edited for length.

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