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No doubt in Payne's mind: Chicago benefits from Olympics

We now interrupt the Michael Phelps Olympics to ask a question: Are you sure you want the 2016 Summer Games, Chicago?

I'm just saying because Beijing seems to be having a few issues as the 2008 host, though you'd never know it from the state-run media. According to China, its gymnasts' passports aren't Jason Bourne doctored, its air is oxygen-tank pure, and the revocation of Joey Cheek's visa had nothing to do with his co-founding of Team Darfur.

Children sing, except when they're lip-synching. Fireworks explode, except when they're digitally placed on your TV screen. Tiananmen Square -- the happiest place on Earth!
Internet access censored. Journalists watched. Protesters muted. It turns out China's obsession with perfection has become its imperfection.

And yet, starstruck cities line up for the bid process like they're waiting to hit the bathroom troughs at Wrigley between innings. London is getting the 2012 Summer Games. Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and my town, Chicago, are the finalists for the 2016 Olympics.

Other than ego and money -- two intoxicating and overpowering items -- I don't understand why Chicago needs the Olympics. I mean, we already have Rainbow cones, Cork & Kerry, the Bean, Buckingham Fountain, Taylor Street, Second City, Billy Goat Tavern, Lollapalooza, Bill Murray parachuting at the Air & Water Show, the Cubs and White Sox, the Taste of Chicago food festival and the lakefront. Plus, the Olympics cost billions; a large Rainbow cone costs $3.78.

But Chicago wants an Olympics, which is to say, Mayor Richard Daley wants an Olympics. He isn't alone. More than a few heavy hitters here think a Chicago Olympics would cement our status as an international city, as if Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, Little Poland and the Pilsen neighborhood (Hispanic), to name a few, don't already do that.

So I called Billy Payne, the former president of the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee and now chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. Actually, Payne called me from Montana, where he was vacationing at the time.

I covered those 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Let's just say there's a reason why then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch didn't bestow the traditional "best Olympics ever" designation on those Games. Those Atlanta Olympics meant well, but there were practical (transportation snafus) and aesthetic (a state fair feel, over-commercialization) problems. Nor did a pipe bomb at the Centennial Olympic Park help.

Payne is familiar with the criticisms. He is so scarred by the Olympic experience that he paused for, oh, maybe three nanoseconds before backslapping Chicago's bid and politely telling me I was nuts to question the wisdom of a Windy City Summer Games.

"It's absolutely the most unifying event, lifetime experience that you could ever imagine for your city," said Payne, who isn't working with Chicago's organizing committee directly, but does have former members of his Atlanta team involved in the candidacy. "Social, religious, political -- it will come together in a common sense of pride for the community that will be so powerful that it will surprise them."

That's nice. But is a few weeks of extra-strength community pride worth the trouble? And won't Phelps be retired by then?

"Some can try to minimalize it only as a sporting event," Payne said. "That trivializes the real significance. The real significance is bringing people together."

Payne obviously hasn't been to the Taste on a Saturday afternoon in July. You can't bring people closer together than the line at the Fireplace Inn ribs booth.

But, OK, Chicago will hold hands with the rest of the world and sing, "Kumbiya." I get it.
The Olympics is a civics lesson in tolerance, global understanding and humanity.

"An idea founded in goodness," Payne said.

Fine, that's the philosophical, ethereal part of the equation. But at the risk of being too crass, what about the brick and mortar benefits? What's in it for us?

Well, we're supposed to get some transit projects out of it. There's the Olympics-related financial trickle-down for the local economy, both during and after the Games. And urban revitalization is also on the Chicago committee's 16-item list of hosting benefits. (The list, though, gets a little desperate by the end: 15. Meet new, extraordinary people. Uh, I can do that any day on Lower Wacker.)

"It would recenter the direction of the city for the next 100 years," Payne said.

Atlanta's Olympics did transform parts of the city. The 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park still remains in a previously blighted part of downtown. Georgia State University received the housing facilities used by Olympic athletes. Some of the sporting venues were donated to local universities such as Georgia Tech. The Atlanta Braves play in the former Olympic Stadium.

Payne said the Olympics gave an adrenaline shot to Atlanta's growth. It also provided a dos-and-don'ts road map for an American finalist city.

I can't argue with Payne's advice. He said Chicago committee chairman Patrick Ryan should hire the best-possible organizational, operational and logistical experts in the world; that he should remember his constituency is the entire Chicago community ("The opinion that matters is not the writer coming from France. You're going to be judged by the lady who works in the South Side grocery store."), and that he needs to "stiff arm" those who see the Olympics only as an economic opportunity.

Payne likes Chicago's bid and its chances, partly because of the timing and the time zones. By 2016, 20 years will have passed since a Summer Games was on U.S. soil.

"I'm not saying it won't be difficult," Payne said. "But it will be the greatest … experience in all of Chicago's history. Zero doubt about that."

Better than the '85 Bears? Can we get that in writing?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.