The two most sought after sports events in the world are the Olympic Games and the World Cup in football. Brazil will host the World Cup next year (so the draw for the groups took place yesterday) and then the summer Olympics in 2016. Clearly there are many reasons why countries go after these events: the prestige of being able to handle the event, the world-wide publicity and the hope for longer-term tourism revenues, and the domestic PR value and possible boost for the national economy. But when countries bid for these events, it is not uncommon to downplay the risks and the negative aspects, and many bidders do not care about the public opinion.
The reality is also that both events have taken on such proportions, due to the ‘ratcheting effect’ that flows from the desire to outdo previous organizers, the selfish demands of FIFA and IOC, and the sense that only a really spectacular event will create the PR effect that was sought. This means that not many countries have the resources and infrastructure to handle the burden, and some of those who do find it better to decline the opportunity. At the same time, it has become a matter of prestige for both IOC and FIFA to award the events to continents and regions which, for obvious reasons, have not had the opportunity before. This means that the need for major construction efforts in a difficult setting is becoming more common.
If then, like in the case of the World Cup, Brazil makes it a matter of prestige to spread the event to many more locations than is strictly necessary, and to include places that seem rather farfetched choices, such as Manaus in the Amazonas and Cuiaba near the Bolivian border, then that seems to be asking for trouble. Several completely new stadiums had to be constructed, whereas others amount to complete renovations of old structures. All the stadiums were supposed to be finished this month to provide some margin, but clearly this is not going to happen. Several have work left for the next few months, and the stadium in Sao Paulo, the Itaquerao, which is supposed to host the opening match, is of course now giving special reasons for concern after the deadly accident just a couple of weeks ago,
There is a race against the clock also as regards the arenas for the 2016 Olympics. The IOC is undertaking frequent inspections, and it has been a roller-coaster of gloomy predictions and more upbeat reports of good progress. There are concerns about many aspects of the infrastructure, such as the roads and the public transit, the scarcity of hotel accommodations, and environmental aspects. Worries about revenues from key sponsorships and the possibly of interference through public protests also remain. The IOC President is expected to show up and apply pressure in the next few weeks.
During the ‘Play the Game’ conference, senior Brazilian officials attempted to provide a sense of reassurance. What had especially raised questions among media and sports officials around the world was the increasing sense that large segments of the public in a football-crazy and sports-minded country such as Brazil had taken to the streets in often violent manifestations against the public expenditure, initially on the World Cup. In a country where there are widespread and deeply rooted concerns about poverty, public health, the failures of the educational system and the many shortcomings in the investments for basic infrastructure, there are many who doubt the wisdom of the massive one-time investments in sports facilities and directly related projects. “The country just cannot afford it, the priorities are all wrong, and there will never be a real return on these investments” is the basic complaint.
The Communications Director for the World Cup, Saint-Clair Milesi, tried to paint a different picture. He emphasized that the infrastructure improvements will be helpful also for the general public, even though massive road and telecommunications projects in the jungle and in the wetlands might seem to be something very different from a more systematic effort focusing on where the most acute needs exist. Milesi also noted that the public expenditure is surpassed by private investments that otherwise might not be forthcoming. And the representative from the Comptroller General in Brazil pointed to the savings that his office had been able to achieve in the contracting, and he noted that many projects had actually come in under budget. But such stories appear to do very little to appease the opposition, and it remains to be seen whether the final construction stages, and then the actual events, will avoid becoming a catalyst for social unrest and massive protests.