Olympic officials tour Chicago as part of bid for 2016 games

Monday, April 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO — Members of the International Olympics Committee inspection team were driven around Chicago on Sunday to existing facilities, such as Soldier Field, and to the sites still on the drawing board, such as the Olympic Stadium. Chicago is one of three finalists to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.

It is arguably the most important day of their nearly weeklong visit, which ends Tuesday, for the simple reason that it gives organizers the chance to drive home a key point of their bid — that Chicago's Olympics would be a compact affair.

"Today is the day we can really show that," United States Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said. "The significance of today is that it's an opportunity not only to present plans, but to show those plans — bring them to life."

The tour ended with a video greeting from Michael Jordan, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, at the city's United Center, where Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls.

"The memory of standing as a representative of the United States in the Olympics was one of the proudest moments of my life," Jordan told committee members as children played basketball nearby.

Chicago is the first stop for the inspection team, which will also visit Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tokyo before voting in October on which city is awarded the games.

On a cold, windy day that started with rain and ended with snow — and seemed more conducive to pitching the Winter Games — the IOC saw just how close most events are to each other, the proposed Olympic Village and cultural spots like the Field Museum and Millennium Park.

The bus took the committee down Lake Shore Drive, with organizers reminding them that events such as rowing would be held just to their east on Lake Michigan. To the west was Grant Park, the site of archery as well as Buckingham Fountain — the proposed starting point for the marathon.

A couple minutes later the bus passed McCormick Place, a massive 2.5 million square foot convention center where 11 Olympic and eight paralympic events would be held. It would also house a training facility, broadcast center and press center.

Their first stop was just to the south, where organizers are proposing to build the Olympic Village for 16,000 athletes on property that now holds a nearly shuttered hospital.

There, organizers said, they were greeted by Mayor Richard Daley and Greg Louganis, one of the greatest divers in Olympic history.

Next, they looped back to McCormick Place, passing a rhythmic gymnastics demonstration in the concourse on their way to exhibitions of other sports.

"I hope they were impressed," said 12-year-old Jazzy Kerber, of suburban Chicago, one of the gymnasts. "I hope they saw Chicago is a really good city."

Later, as the sun peeked briefly through threatening clouds, the delegation visited Washington Park on the South Side, where the main Olympic Stadium would be built. To show the outline of the proposed stadium, 205 volunteers held up flags for each of the Olympic nations around its perimeter.

Although demonstrators opposed to the games had threatened to set up a tent city of the homeless in Washington Park to coincide with the visit, no tents were visible from where the committee members stood.

In fact, greeting committee members on the South Side were City Council members whose wards on that side of the city are mostly minority, and who voiced their support for the games and the benefits they would bring to the community.

"Unlike other cities, which cleared whole sections so they could build the Olympic village and venues, we're not doing that," Alderman Toni Preckwinkle said.

Further, she said, "There is going to be substantial affordable housing in the residential development that follows the Olympics."

By the end of the day, the committee will have stopped at 12 sites, including the northernmost Chicago venue — the proposed site of the tennis stadium in Lincoln Park.

Gold medal-winning gymnast Bart Conner, and his wife, Nadia Comaneci, the gymnast who received the first ever perfect scores of 10 when she won three gold medals for Romania in the 1976 games also met the delegation.

They said that the committee can't help but be impressed by the fact that the vast majority of the athletes will be living in a village that is within 15 minutes of where they will train and compete.

"That's huge for the athletes," said Conner, who grew up in the Chicago area. "The athletes' biggest concern is reserving energy so they can be at their best on the day of competition."

Comaneci said that one message she has for the committee, which organizers have also been trumpeting, is that Chicago is home to people from all over the world — meaning it will be comfortable for athletes from all over the world.

"From athletes' point of view, when you come to a place where people speak your language ... it's very convenient for the athlete," she said.

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