Everything You Know About Big, International Sporting Events Is Wrong


Last Thursday, the eyes of the world were firmly fixed on Arena de São Paulo. The four-year wait was over — the World Cup was back. And the opening game between host Brazil and Croatia did not disappoint. From the sheer passion with which the national anthem was belted out by players and fans in the stadium to the roar of the city when the Seleção scored each of the three goals to secure the win, it became clear why the tournament is considered by many to be the biggest event on the planet.

But the joy was tempered by protest against the World Cup again erupting across Brazil. Brazilians have been taking the street for more than a year over the cost of hosting this global party, among other things. While Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA (world soccer's beleaguered governing body) have tried to get the population to rally behind the World Cup, the fact that 61% believe it is bad for Brazil is a stark reminder of the burden of such mega events.

Against this backdrop, some have tipped Brazil 2014 to be a "turning point in terms of ambition levels and costs for global sports events, which have been rising for years.

Countries get away with justifying these high-priced events with the help of a few myths that give the impression that they're good for the countries that host them. Here are seven lies we need to stop telling about expensive events like the World Cup:

1. They will boost the economy.


Just days before the start of the World Cup, President Rousseff claimed that it "injects billions of reais into the economy. It creates jobs."

Economic benefits is one of the main arguments used by leaders of host nations to justify the huge expenditure connected to organizing international sporting events. The majority of evidence, however, does not back this up.

"The economic benefit is typically zero,"  said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross, adding that even when there are gains, "it's not enough to justify the price tag."  

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is an apt example. At $50 billion, it was the most expensive games in Olympic history. However, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development predicted that the games would not benefit Russia's national economy in any way.

Image Credit: International Business Times

Similarly, the comprehensive new infrastructure Japan built as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup barely had an impact on its slow-moving economy. In Germany, significant economic gains did not last beyond the weeks of the 2006 tournament.

A convincing debunking of this myth can be found in the book Soccernomics. Authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that there are potential, measurable benefits to hosting a World Cup — namely societal happiness — but sum it up well when they say, "In truth, staging sports tournaments doesn't make you rich at all."

2. They can be separated from politics.


When a global sports event rolls around, the old trope of keeping politics and sports separate is usually not far behind. But the fact is, sports events have long been used as platforms to make political statements. The Brazil protests are merely the latest example.

The reasons for wanting to host the Olympics have little to do with sport, says Janice Forsyth, Director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

"The Games are used to present the city and host country in the best possible light to investors,"Forsyth said.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics, with its spectacular opening ceremony, was believed by many to be a platform for the Chinese regime to send a message to the world.

Image Credit: AP.

Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese dissident artist and designer of the Bird's Nest, hit out at the "propaganda" of the Olympics: "I hate the kind of feeling stirred up by promotion or propaganda ... It's the kind of sentiment when you don't stick to the facts, but try to make up something, to mislead people away from a true discussion. It is not good for anyone."

3. The public will not foot the bill.


At the core of the protests against the World Cup in Brazil is the fact that out of the estimated record-breaking price tag of more than $11 billion some $3 billion is public money. Despite assurances that the money spent on stadium work would come from private investment, this event has ended up being largely funded by taxpayers

"The [Olympic] Games are always a loser for the public, who pays for the majority of the costs," explained Forsyth.

With $5 billion spent by South Africa on the 2010 World Cup, the tournament only generated $500 million worth of revenue.

The London Olympics have also been criticized for going over budget.

In the Financial Times John Kay pointed out that "misleading estimates of costs and revenues are endemic to large, idiosyncratic public sector projects."

It is not surprising that the Sochi and Beijing Olympics, hosted by countries with very little government accountability, were the most expensive games ever.

"The Games work best in authoritarian states, where the government can use public funds however it chooses to make the Olympic project work, without public input," said Forsyth. 

4. They are accessible.


Huge sporting events are often billed as global celebrations, bringing the world together. But instead, many citizens of host nations find themselves priced out of taking part.

Tickets for the group stage games at this year's World Cup can cost more than $150 for local people, but even the cheaper tickets are too expensive for many of Brazil's poor.

Take the iconic Maracanã stadium, which was renovated for the World Cup.

"The lower level used to be where the cheapest seats were," explained one resident of a Rio favela in a recent documentary by former football player Eric Cantona. "Since they destroyed it, the poor can no longer go to the stadium. The Maracanã has become an elitist place where the disadvantaged are excluded."

Frustratingly, many of the best seats in the stadiums are often reserved for corporate sponsors who at times don't even bother turning up, as was the case at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where at some points you could spot thousands of yellow clad volunteers in the stands, making up numbers. At the Beijing Olympics, officials saw it necessary to bus in crowds to boost attendance figures.

5. The aftermath will benefit the public.

Getty Images

The building work connected to mega sporting events, and the spending this entails, is often justified by claims that it will have long-term benefits, especially if it involves improved infrastructure.

But these are just excuses according to Soccernomics, using the example of the 2012 London Olympics: "If you want to regenerate a poor neighborhood, regenerate it. Build nice houses and a train line ... You could build pools and tracks all across London and it would still be cheaper than hosting the Olympics."

Indeed, London's 2012 Games made much of its promise to regenerate the city's historically impoverished East End and leave a lasting "legacy."

Image Credit: Getty Images.

While this has happened to an extent, there have been claims that unemployment levels have not improved, and a parliamentary report highlighted the "uneven distribution of economic benefits of the Games across the UK."  

This is without taking into account costly new stadiums and other sporting venues. Many of these, from Beijing"s "Bird"s Nest" to several of the stadiums built for the World Cup in South Africa, are now little more than white elephants, not in use for most of the year.

Additionally, the maintenance costs of Cape Town Stadium in the four years since the World Cup left town have "outstripped revenues by a factor of 4:1." While Brazil has a much stronger soccer tradition, history now threatens to repeat itself, as four of the new stadiums are in cities without a top division soccer team to fill them.

6. No one gets hurt when they don't go according to plan.


There were numerous reports of stadiums in Brazil being worked on weeks, even days, before the World Cup was set to start. In May, eight workers were killed while trying to finish building work time. Meanwhile, the preparations for the 2016 Rio Olympics, have already been labelled the "worst ever." The night before the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics work was still being done on venues.

But perhaps the most notorious example in recent times, was the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India. There were reports of forced evictions, environmental damage, construction delays, child labour, poor ticket sales and more — the list of scandals connected to the Games is so long, it has it's own Wikipedia page.

7. The organizations behind them can be trusted.


Legendary Brazilian footballer Romário has said that during the World Cup, the president of Brazil is no longer Dilma Rousseff, but FIFA President Sepp Blatter commandeers that level of power. He perfectly summed up a big problem with these mega events.

FIFA has had huge impact on host nations, from Brazil's World Cup law to South Africa's "FIFA courts." This is worrying because, as Roger Pielke Jr. sums up in an article for Sport Management Review, the organization "has demonstrated time and again that it has essentially no hierarchical, supervisory, peer or public reputational accountability, and minimal fiscal accountability."

Essentially, FIFA can do what it wants and answer to no one. This is bad enough in itself, but is made even worse by FIFA showing a consistent inability to keep its own house in order. The unfolding corruption scandal related to awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is merely the latest in a long line.

The International Olympic Committee is no stranger to controversy either. Ten members of the IOC were kicked out, and another ten sanctioned, over accepting bribes from the organizing committee of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The incident led to reforms within the organization.

And while both bodies stand to make huge profits from their respective events, neither FIFA nor the IOC have much incentive to keep costs down. As Victor Matheson explained, "On paper, the IOC and FIFA don't care whether it costs $51 billion to host the Olympics in Sochi or $14 billion to host the World Cup in Brazil, because 'I'm not paying those costs.'"