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Q&A: Chicago bid chair Pat Ryan

On Oct. 2, 2009, the International Olympic Committee will convene in Copenhagen to vote on the city that will host the Olympics in 2016. Chicago is one of four candidate cities, along with Rio de Janiero, Madrid and Tokyo. Chicago Bid Chairman Patrick Ryan talked with SI.com about the prospects of the Chicago bid.

SI.com: Why Chicago?

Ryan: The city of Chicago is passionate about hosting the Games, which is going to translate into a fantastic experience for the athletes, the Olympic family and all the visitors. We will have the ability to demonstrate that support in multiple ways. I think Chicago will make a very profound impact on the Olympic movement, in that we have great interest and support for bringing the Olympic values and principles into the region.

SI.com: You had a chance to see the Pan-Am Games in Rio, another multi-sport competition. What have you learned here that you perhaps didn't know before or perhaps weren't aware of until you had a chance to see it yourself?

Ryan: A couple of things. One: the scale. You have to see it in person to really understand it. Two: [Beijing] is a huge city. Chicago is, too, but not on this scale. I think it's really important for us to focus on the engagement of the neighboring communities during the Games. That's a challenge when you're a very large city. We're a large city: 8.5 million. It's not 18 million, but it's a lot. Then making the scale work in order to benefit all the constituencies, starting with the athletes.

SI.com: You mentioned the scale. Beijing has an open-ended budget. Give me an idea of where you might see flexibility or potential overruns in Chicago's ($360 million).

Ryan: We're totally different from Beijing in that we've had a totally new airport with new runways in place. The infrastructure for transportation is already established as opposed to what Beijing and Athens had to do. Second, we have a very robust rail and transportation system that funnels into the city. Irrespective of the Olympic Games, there's a need to invest capital in new rail equipment. I believe that will be resolved well before the Games. We have basic infrastructure already in place. Additionally, 65 percent of our venues are already in place. Chicago has available for redevelopment prime real estate that is along the lakefront. That will create a fantastic village, but it will be very attractive for private financing.

SI.com: You're referring to a hospital.

Ryan: The hospital is closing, irrespective of the Games. It was in financial difficulty.

SI.com: The price I've seen on that purchase was $85 million.

Ryan: That was press speculation. That has not been disclosed.

SI.com: So what is the status of it?

Ryan: We control the site that we need for the Games. There is additional real estate that we are discussing that would make the village even larger and more meaningful for the Games. But in terms of control of the land for the village, we already have that.

SI.com: The IOC pointed out some areas of concern in its initial evaluation of Chicago's bid. They mentioned the distance between the Lakefront area and the trains. Did they miss the boat on that?

Ryan: No, we didn't communicate that as well as we needed to. We didn't explain that, as you know, the rail funnels into the center city in what's called the west side of the loop. A lot of people walk that, but a lot of people take the shuttle. But what we didn't communicate as well as we should have was that we have these shuttles that take people to and from the lakefront. The rail itself is well positioned, because we have multiple lines. As we said, it needs some capital investment.

SI.com: Another concern they had was the budget projection for venue construction may have been unrealistically low. Do you disagree with that?

Ryan: It was a reminder to keep working your venues and your venue costs and to recognize evolving change. The original numbers were in '06 dollars. We're talking about 2016 utilization. We looked at the evaluation report as an opportunity to learn, not to refute.

SI.com: Were you concerned about the fact that overall in the IOC's initial written evaluation, it had more favorable remarks about Tokyo and Madrid? I know you can't comment on your competitors.

Ryan: The process gives you a chance to step into the huddle of the opposition and see what play they're going to call. So we like the process. We weren't surprised by the outcome. It's a point in time and we think it gives us ample time to adjust.

SI.com: What adjustment will you make between now and your presentation in Copenhagen?

Ryan: First, we need to do a better job communicating about our transportation. Second, getting them all the support they need to be comfortable with the cost of our venues. Third, we need to put more meat on the bones in certain areas, which we'll be able to do in the bid book.

SI.com: How much of the budget will be devoted to security and so forth?

Ryan: We haven't gone public with that. Security is the biggest unknown, but it does qualify for the federal government's involvement in partnership with the city of Chicago. So that number will emerge over time. In terms of transportation, we have already budgeted infrastructure improvements that will be made, irrespective of the Games, but will still improve the Games. So that's out of our budget. The village? We already control the land, but we feel that can be made larger, more attractive. So that is a moving target as to what that scale will be.

SI.com: The frosty relationship between the New York bid committee and the USOC worked against the New York bid for 2012. How would you characterize the relationships you've had with them and how valuable is it to have a good working relationship?

Ryan: First of all, there is a new USOC since the New York bid and they've been working very hard to strengthen their organization -- I think they've done it well -- and also to reach out to the IOC for the last few years. New York was clearly into the game before the change began and so both sides would say the relationship wasn't what it should have been. We're the beneficiaries of the change. They put us through a simulated IOC bid process to win the domestic one. Through that we developed a great partnership. We can't win without a strong relationship with the USOC that's transparent to the IOC.

SI.com: Some IOC members raised the issue of visas for athletes, officials and Olympic family members getting into and out of the country, which has become more difficult since 9/11. Have you gotten some assurances from the State Department that that might change or improve?

Ryan: Yes. First of all, IOC members constantly raise that. Through hosting the World Boxing Championships last fall, we demonstrated that we could establish a partnership with the State Department. Some 600 boxers applied to come to the championships and they all got in. When they did their part -- filling out the proper forms at the local embassies -- it went quite smoothly. When they didn't quite get to it, we intervened and helped them. We had a diplomatic line running through immigration, so everybody got in and with very few exceptions because of paperwork on the other end, they were at their hotels in the center of the city within 90 minutes of their planes touching down.

SI.com: There is a history of bidding cities that are considered favorites who don't win. I get a sense from you and [USOC board chairman] Peter Ueberroth that you don't want to be considered favorites.

Ryan: We don't and I would say we're not the favorites. We understand the history and I don't think anybody's a favorite right now. I'm a firm believer in the six-weeks, six-day, six-hour, six-minute phenomenon of when people make their decisions. So we're just going about

SI.com: It was very helpful for London to have Tony Blair do the legwork, especially the last-minute legwork, that he did in Singapore to help them win the bid for 2012. Will it matter who wins the election and will it matter if [Barack] Obama or [John] McCain is proactive in support of the bid.

Ryan: Both candidates have publicly stated their support for our bid. I agree that it was very important for Tony Blair to be there for London and also for Mr. [Vladimir] Putin to be there on behalf of Sochi to articulate their support in the persuasive ways they both did. We believe we have the commitment from each of the presidential candidates that they will do the same. I think it's critical. I think the IOC wants to know that wherever they are going, there is support all the way through the various branches of government to the local community. I think our Mayor [Richard] Daley has done extremely well with the IOC members in terms of communicating what the bid's all about, and I think we'll get the same support from whoever wins the election.

SI.com: Blair went to Singapore on the eve of the G-8 summit, a very busy time for him. Do you believe either candidate would be willing to go to Copenhagen next fall to offer their support and meet one-on-one with IOC members as he did?

Ryan: I think they have both said they will offer their support to the full extent that they can. I would hope, if it's possible -- you have to be realistic in that if there were some crisis, they couldn't just drop that -- but I interpret the support to mean we'll do whatever we can to help you, and that if they will each make every attempt to go.

SI.com: I'm sure you don't want to talk about "what if it doesn't happen?" But could a Chicago bid sustain itself for 2020, if necessary?

Ryan: We don't want to look at it that way, but let me say this: Chicago is already benefiting from the bid process. I personally have never seen it more bonded, more unified than it is over this initiative. It is already making an impact in the city. For example, we are already partnering with the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, the McCormick Foundation to development programs that will benefit the youth of the city and that will be in place at the time of the selection. Even if we don't win, that will have a profound impact on the city of Chicago.

SI.com: For those who drop in on Chicago periodically, what will be different about the infrastructure and physical appearance of the city as this process proceeds?

Ryan: There is an eyesore on the near South Side lakefront. That will be replaced by this beautiful new residential living. It will include affordable housing. It will open that part of the lakefront to a community that is somewhat isolated from the utilization of the lakefront, the African-American community. So there will be this fantastic near South Side urban development plan that will greatly enhance the quality of life for that part of the city. That's irrespective of whether we win. The city has been undergoing a beautification and a development that is somewhat unprecedented. I don't know if you've seen the area around Millennium Park, but it is booming. I think irrespective of winning, we'll develop new sport facilities that people will get excited about. If we don't win, they're still going to want to go through with the state-of-the-art aquatic center and additional facilities. We have something called World Sport Chicago that we developed two and a half years ago. It is bringing Olympic sport to the high schools in the park district. That will go forward irrespective of whether we win, so there is already a legacy.

SI.com: The most famous athlete in Chicago is someone I haven't seen very involved with the bid. Is Michael Jordan going to be more involved, given the fact that he is not only a sport figure who is widely recognized worldwide, but he is also a two-time Olympic champion?

Ryan: Michael agreed to help us, but he has a very busy schedule, so he said, "I'll help you when you tell me you really need me." We're going to count on that, because he will help us.

SI.com: Finally, when you're here, what happens when you cross paths with an IOC member who holds your fate in his hands or her hands? Give me a sense of how pre-planned or random those exchanges are and what do you say?

Ryan: There is a lot of random contact and it is very important to respect their privacy and their schedules. We want to maintain relationships without getting in anyone's face. But we do have scheduled meetings at USA House for lunch or dinner. They are anxious to see the Chicago room that explains the bid. We had a reception the other night. That gave us an opportunity to meet IOC members we hadn't met. But also, this is really an interim process. That's why it's been important to be at every sanctioned opportunity we've had. You get to a point where they know you and you know them.

SI.com: You obviously have things that you want to communicate about Chicago when you have their ear. What sort of things to ask you when they have your ear?

Ryan: A very common question is the visa issue. They want to go where they're really wanted. A lot of them will say 'I didn't know this about Chicago.' I lot of them didn't know we were on this fantastically beautiful lake that's so very large. They think of a lake on a much smaller scale. They ask questions about the political commitment. They're very well versed about the presidential campaign.

SI.com: They may know more about it than most Americans.

Ryan: Absolutely, I think they do.

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