If you spend some time wandering the fields and hillsides outside of Athens, as I’ve done, you will see rising from the scrub a very different sort of Greek ruin. There’s a crumbling volleyball stadium with nomadic families living in its stands. There’s a 20,000-seat softball park largely reclaimed by trees. A barren, grass-covered hillside resembling a huge abandoned amphitheatre turns out to have been a kayaking venue. All were built for the 2004 Olympic Games.
The world is littered with such ruins. They are the products of pure hubris: the gamble, made by countries and cities, that spending countless billions on a two-week sporting event will somehow repay its investment by improving the city’s fortune and reputation.
Starting in a few days, we will see this gamble played out on the highest scale, as Brazil attempts to host the world’s two largest and most expensive sporting events, the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, in quick succession. Both will surely be great spectacles to watch from abroad: Nobody does sports, especially soccer, with more exuberance than Brazil, or does parties better than Rio de Janeiro.
But, like most host countries, Brazil has promised its people more: First, a big boost to tourism and spinoff-industry employment. Second, a better life for the millions of poor slum-dwellers packed into Rio and Sao Paulo.
Much as London tried to use the 2012 Summer Games to revivify a rotted corner of the East End, and Vancouver used the Winter Games to create a better highway from Vancouver to Whistler, Rio pledged to use the Cup and the Games to transform its thousands of violent, poor favelas into better places.
I’ve spent the past six years watching this program, known in Portuguese as UPP (for Pacifying Police Program). In 2008, it was the world’s most enlightened slum-revitalization initiative: Brazil parachuted simultaneous teams of engineers, cartogaphers, title-deed commissioners, social workers, sanitation engineers, business-education specialists, police and social workers into a slum and attempt to transform its economic and social foundations – and house foundations – overnight.
But as the World Cup got closer and Brazil began to panic about the persistence of drug crime in its streets, the UPP programs became far less about careful social and economic transformation and far more about aggressive crime control, people working in the favelas tell me: Many of these efforts have been reduced, in haste, to mere police raids – sometimes brutal ones. In the end, as always, the big event is more important than the benefits it’s purported to create.
Brazil is also about to discover two immutable rules of major sports events.
First, that tourism is never boosted. During the event itself, whether it’s London or Beijing or Johannesburg, visitor levels will plummet: The number of people drawn by the event will be dwarfed by the numbers of regular tourists who stay away because the big event is on. Sometimes, as in Greece, South Africa or Australia, it takes years for normal activity to recover.
Second, that the economy is never boosted enough to justify the cost. Governments constantly produce “impact assessments” showing huge employment and economy gains from sports-event spending. But a review in The Sport Journal of numerous analyses of economic outcomes found “the effect of these events on host communities to be either insignificant or an order of magnitude less than the figures espoused by the sports promoters.” The cost is always greater than the benefit.
Governments and voters are increasingly aware of these effects. Bidding for the 2022 Winter Games has almost ground to a halt. Bids from Krakow, Stockholm, Munich, Davos, Oslo and Lviv have been withdrawn or imperilled, most because governments and voters have concluded, in the words of sports writer Barry Petchesky, that “the whole thing is one huge, useless waste of money.” The last remaining bids are likely to be from two dictatorships, Kazakhstan and China.
And that seems to be the pattern: If you’re accountable to your people, you avoid imposing big sports events on them. A report commissioned by the Dutch government two years ago predicted, quite accurately it appears, that such events will soon be held only by dictatorships: “It could be possible that the Olympic Games will only take place in upcoming, non-democratic countries who simply have the centralized power and money to organize them,” as well as citizens who are unable to prevent them from wasting their money – “but that would very much distance the Olympic Games from how it started,” wrote authors Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder.