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Now that the games are over, let the Games begin in South Africa Add to ...

Soaring on a wave of praise for hosting one of the greatest World Cups in history, South Africa says it is now ready to tackle an even bigger challenge: the first Olympics on African soil.

It would be a hugely expensive gamble, a challenge that has nearly bankrupted other countries. Yet after the extraordinary success of the World Cup over the past month, a bid for the 2020 Olympic Games could be the next natural step for South Africa, and for the African continent.

Just a few weeks ago, critics were portraying South Africa as a crime-ridden country where foreign soccer fans would be attacked by machete-wielding gangs, mugged in the streets or, at a minimum, lost in transport chaos. None of those gloomy predictions came true.

South Africa had the resilience and pragmatism, and the first-world infrastructure, to pull off a triumphant World Cup with verve and cheerfulness. Most observers are now calling this one of the best World Cups in history, largely because of the enthusiasm of the host country and its people. With 3.2 million spectators, and huge television audiences, it boasted the second-highest attendance - and greatest profits - of any World Cup in history.

With the soccer tournament over, the South Africans are keen to capitalize on this momentum. This is a sports-crazy country, yearning for more of the nation-building campaigns that the World Cup provided, and now it is chock full of the highways, airports, hotels and spectacular stadiums that would bolster an Olympic bid.

A bid for the 2020 Olympics would be daunting. The summer Games would be massively expensive for a developing country to host - a cost that has proven nearly back-breaking even for wealthier countries like Greece - and the organizational pressures would be exponentially heavier than a soccer tournament. South Africa's bid would be competing with well-funded cities like Rome, Tokyo, Madrid and possibly Toronto.

But now, with the World Cup to boost their prospects, South Africa's Olympic organizers have quietly mapped out their plan. Over the next few months, they will consult widely among political and business leaders to ensure that their plan has support. Then they must choose their Olympic candidate city from three options: Cape Town, Durban or Johannesburg. Finally they will gear up their bid book and their lobbying machinery, targeting their efforts at a key meeting of the International Olympic Committee scheduled to be held in Durban next July. Everything will culminate in 2013 when the IOC chooses the host of the 2020 Games.

A careful look at Durban's gorgeous new Moses Mabhida stadium, the site of a World Cup semifinal last week, reveals that an Olympic bid was a big part of the hidden agenda for the new architecture. Soccer fans were pushed back from each end of the stadium to make room for a track oval - exactly the correct size for Olympic track events. On its official website, Durban points out that the stadium has "the potential to expand to 85,000 seats to meet the requirements of large-scale events such as the Olympic Games."

The IOC's president, Jacques Rogge, has already said that he would welcome a South African bid. The entire sports world is "very happy" at the success of the World Cup in South Africa, he said on Saturday after a meeting with South Africa President Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Zuma has also declared that his country is ready for the Olympics. "I'm sure we could do it," he said this month. "I will put it on the agenda. I don't see why we can't bid to host the Olympics in the future. It's important for Africa."

And FIFA president Sepp Blatter, head of the governing body for world soccer, says he would "fully support" a South African bid for the Olympics.

But persuading the IOC's voting delegates won't be easy. The Summer Olympics can be an organizational nightmare, far more complex and intensive than a World Cup, with up to 10 or 15 events happening simultaneously on each of its 16 days.

Brazil, another developing country, surprised the skeptics by winning the 2016 Olympics for its candidate city, Rio de Janeiro. But Brazil is far bigger and more powerful than South Africa, even if it shares some of the same issues of poverty and crime, and it will have greater resources to handle the Olympic costs.

Those costs can be enormous. The Olympics require dozens of venues, from basketball arenas and swimming pools to velodromes and equestrian venues, along with an Olympic Village for 20,000 athletes, and they must be located within a compact area. For the 2012 Olympics, for example, London has a budget of $13.3-billion - nearly triple the South African budget for the World Cup. Another developed country, Greece, spent nearly $11-billion on the 2004 Olympics (at current exchange rates) plus another $1.2-billion for security costs, and the burden was one of the contributing factors in Greece's financial crisis that nearly bankrupted the country this year.

Each of the potential South African bidding cities has disadvantages too. Durban, with a population of 3.5 million, has good infrastructure and a warm climate on the Indian Ocean, but it has some of the worst crime and poverty in the country. And its organizational weaknesses were exposed last week when 500 soccer fans missed the semi-final because of chaos at Durban airport, where private VIP jets refused to make room for incoming passenger jets.

Cape Town has a spectacular location of mountains and ocean, along with a beautiful new stadium, but it failed in its bid for the 2004 Olympics and might lack the population base to support the Olympic venues. Johannesburg, the third option, has plenty of stadiums and a big population but is located at high altitude, a potential problem for Olympic athletes, and lacks the natural beauty of Cape Town and Durban.

Despite all of these pitfalls, South Africa now has the momentum and the global branding to make it a powerful contender for the Olympics. The IOC meeting in Durban next year, when the host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics will be chosen, could be a huge boost for the South African bid. "This is quite simply a masterstroke, ensuring that all IOC members and their spouses will be exposed to the city - and hence be able to draw on personal experience should they ever be required to assess its suitability as an Olympic host," wrote David Owen, a blogger who specializes in global sports.

Some analysts suggest that a South African city would have a better chance of winning the Olympics in 2024, allowing the Summer Games to go to a safe choice in a wealthier country in 2020 after the Rio Games. But whenever its bid reaches a vote, it will have one huge advantage: the lure of history.

After the 2016 Games in Brazil, Africa will become the only continent that has never hosted the Olympics. The IOC, just like FIFA, will find it difficult to resist the temptation of entering the history books.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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