International Olympic Committee vice-chair John Coates this week described Brazil's preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games as "the worst" ever. Construction is far behind schedule. Many venues are still awaiting the go ahead. People are asking whether there's a backup country, a Plan B. The situation, says Mr. Coates, is "critical on the ground."
There is a scandal here, though not the one the IOC poobahs have in mind. It is not that athletes and TV viewers might have to endure an Olympics with a few warts. It's that the Games are being held in a poor country that can ill afford them, at a cost of billions of dollars that might have been far better spent on long-term benefits for real people. Instead, limited resources are being sunk into unneeded stadiums and facilities, for the sake of pride and a two week circus. And all of this only two years after Brazil hosts this summer's World Cup of Soccer – another multi-billion dollar distraction the country can ill afford.
A few months ago, Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The games' total cost was pegged at $50 billion. No one can be sure of the real price tag – Moscow isn't exactly known for accounting transparency – but the figure, if true, set a new record for Olympic spending. The title was achieved by a middle income country whose economy is about the same size as Canada's, with four times the population.
In theory, hosting the world's largest sporting events shouldn't be so expensive. Brazil is one of the world capitals of soccer; every major city has a perfectly good stadium. The World Cup could have been hosted entirely on existing infrastructure. Ditto the Olympics. Until relatively recently, these kinds of major international events largely were. They did not require an orgy of spending. But now, apparently, they do.
It's no wonder that the double whammy of the World Cup and the Olympics have become such a hot political issue in Brazil. It was once said that Roman emperors kept the population docile with bread and circuses. In Brazil, a growing number of voters and politicians are beginning to recognize that in the modern world, there's a tradeoff: the more you spend on the circus, the less is left over for bread.