If the World Cup and the Olympics have visited your country, trouble can’t be far behind

Won’t be much to celebrate when it’s over.
Won’t be much to celebrate when it’s over.
Image: Reuters / Jorge Silva
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You know how the old saying goes: if the International Olympic Committee and FIFA have already visited your country, the IMF can’t be far behind.

Okay maybe it isn’t an old saying. Or a saying at all. But it will be one enough. Soon, if the world has any sense at all, countries will start writing “WE WILL NEVER BID FOR A MAJOR GLOBAL SPORTING EVENT EVER” into their constitutions.

Hundreds upon thousands of Brazilians have vigorously informed their government that they simply do not approve of the insane amounts of money being spent on preparing the nation for the World Cup. The Brazilian government will spend an estimated £18 million ($27 million) on building and rebuilding stadia for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It will then have to spend many billions more to prepare Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Like so many other myopic nations before it, Brazil bid for these events without a clear plan of how to actually finance them. And when the government announced plans to increase public transport fares to pay for some of the bills, Brazilians hit the streets.

To give credit to Dilma Roussef’s government, they have responded to the rioters with haste. Though one wonders how much this haste owes to mandarins at FIFA upset at outraged Brazilians causing a scene.

Why do nations keep doing this? Despite overwhelming proof that hosting these events achieve little but to boost national pride in the short term and national debt in the long, countries continue to bid for events they can hardly afford.

Last June, Oxford University’s Said Business School released a working paper titled “Olympic Proportions: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Olympics 1960-2012.”

Researchers found that every single Olympic Games held in the last 50 years had overrun initial cost estimates. The average cost overrun was an eye-watering 179%.

In 2010, South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup. Before the event there was widespread skepticism—initially about South Africa’s ability to complete stadiums in time, and later about what benefits would actually accrue to the South African economy.

Immediately after the tournament, spirits seemed high. A country with more than 40% of its population living on less than $2 a day had just spent 6% of its annual budget on a footballing tournament. Still, the Economist suggested that South Africa “could get a taste for big sporting events.” The magazine suggested that South Africa had benefited from the publicity and a “rise in self-respect.”

One month later over a million South African public workers were on strike demanding pay hikes. The Economist said: “Despite the economic boost provided by the World Cup, the ranks of the jobless continue to grow. Unemployment now stands at 25%…”

Nations continue to under-estimate how much these events cost and over-estimate the long-term economic benefits. Athens, Beijing and South Africa are all now littered with sporting venues that are seldom used, if at all. Brazil, despite all its football madness, will struggle to use so many world-class stadiums.

The events don’t even help the hosts improve in sports either. South Africa achieved a FIFA ranking of 51 in 2010. After plunging to 87 in 2012, it has now recovered to 60.

Greece’s performance at the Olympic Games peaked at Athens, with the nation winning 16 medals and finishing 15th on the table. Eight years later in London, the nation won just two medals and finished 75th. Spain finished 6th on the table in Barcelona, and promptly plunged to historical mediocrity afterwards.

All of this means that nations merely spend billions upon billions of dollars, most of which they can’t afford, for a momentary boost in national morale that is rarely sustained in any economic or sporting form.

Instead of leaving a trail of broken economies and decrepit stadiums in its wake, why don’t FIFA and IOC simply do what so many other sporting bodies do: opt for permanent or semi-permanent venues.

Why not simply decide to always hold the Olympics or the World Cup at one venue? Or rotate them over a chain of venues on each continent? Why not make London, Rio, Atlanta and Beijing hosts in rotation for the Olympics? And do the same thing for the World Cup, thereby ridding these events of the opacity and corruption that always accompanies the bidding processes, and rescuing hapless nations from going broke.

Oh wait. Did I just ask the IOC and FIFA to listen to common sense? Silly me. Carry on rioting.