Hosting a sports “mega-event”: promises, promises

This article originally appeared in Make Travel Fair.  It won second place in the Backdoor Write Your Way In competition.  See the original post here.  September. 2010
The article was republished on The Travel Word.  See the original post here.
September 2010

When I was in London on July 6 of 2005, the city was celebrating. After a long bidding campaign to host the 2012 summer Olympics, the International Olympic Committee had declared it the winner.  People were cheering in the streets and the media was drunk on the good news.  On the subway, everyone was buzzing and smiling until an old bearded man got on board and started nay-saying.  “London Olympics? Not on my dime!” said his cardboard sign.  “This is just one more way that the working man’s taxes are siphoned into deep corporate pockets!” he ranted.  “The promises are false!”

The subway may not be the best forum to open a dialogue, but the bearded nay-sayer had made an impression on me.  If everybody else in the city was joyful with the news, what was this guy talking about?  Who was making these promises? How are they false?  I decided to entertain the bearded nay-sayer’s position and look into the expectations surrounding this year’s most recent mega-event, the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa.  Do mega-events really keep their promises?

the backdoor second place winner

Promise #1:  “Huge economic benefits!”

Economists talk in numbers about the impact of past mega-events in past host regions and make sunny forecasts about the total effect on job creation, increased GDP, direct foreign investment, etc.  The actual data for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is still rolling in, but estimates had promised between and $7.6 billion and $21.3 billion of direct economic benefits from the event.  Between 159,000 and 415,000 jobs were estimated to have been created or sustained. An estimated $40 billion was spent on infrastructure.  No wonder hosting mega-events is often projected to be a great economic windfall.  In this case, speculators had even called the World Cup bid a “turning point” for South Africa.

Who actually benefits?

As the skeptic, my response is that economists and their estimates can’t even agree and their numbers are hollow. They don’t tell you, for example, what investment in other projects could have done. South Africa is a country with extreme economic disparity between the rich and the poor, among other urgent social problems.  Yet a hefty amount of World Cup investment is going towards stadium infrastructure.  Tony Roshan Samara, who has published research on Cape Town politics, comments on the new stadium with a price tag of $600 million. “In a city where you are struggling to provide housing, education, drug counseling services, in a city that is dealing with a horrible epidemic of methamphetamines, to spend that much money on building a stadium, it is a question of the allocation of resources – whether it is a smart allocation of resources … when you have a city struggling with all these social and development issues.”

Nor do the economic estimates indicate who benefits. As the bearded nay-sayer and other skeptics are apt to point out, it is often mega-private interests that gain the most from the mega-investments of mega-events. Media conglomerates and corporate sponsors are the likely bedfellows of FIFA, and they all come out on top.  Rian Malan, South African reporter for the Telegraph, explains. “South Africa winds up with 10 new stadiums, some smart new infrastructure and £450 million in tourist cash. FIFA walks off with about £2 billion in tax-free profits [from sponsorship and broadcast and licensing deals] – 50 per cent more than it made at the last World Cup in Germany.”

Promise #2: “Good for tourism!”

Maybe the entire economic picture is messy, but the benefits for the tourism industry are clear, say the mega-event advocates.  Hosting a mega-event is a marketing boon for a destination, its big chance to project an attractive image when the entire world is watching. “I think it is an opportunity to dispel some of the myths about South Africa and about Africa in general,” says James Stewart, American economist and Africa expert.  In fact, destination marketing research has dedicated serious attention to the relationship between mega-events and destination image. A study on Seoul, South Korea found that foreigners from three different countries had a more positive image of the country after the 2002 World Cup than before, suggesting that a mega-event can change the image of a country in a short time period.  In South Africa, destination marketers want to harness the World Cup as a way to “brand” South Africa in a strong and positive way.

Can the good tourism image last?

But, says the skeptic, all that glitters is not gold.  The shiny image is a makeover that can only conceal so much from tourism’s eye for so long.  Behind the scenes of the event, egregious displacement temporarily made cities in South Africa more presentable. In Cape Town, homeless people were moved from the downtown area around the stadium into razor wire encircled encampments outside the city. Workers’ rights journalist Michelle Chen spoke to Isaac Newton, a homeless South African who had been arrested six times for loitering. “Police harassment is increasing,” he says. “They want to make a good impression for the foreigners coming. We are like insects to them – like flies.” Such harsh realities will eventually reflect back into the image of South Africa as a destination as the World Cup make-up wears off.

Further, a momentary spotlight does not necessarily translate into continuous tourism growth.  Granted, this year’s World Cup in the Rainbow Nation promised to attract up to half a million visitors from all over the world, but this represents a wave and not necessarily a rising tide. The wave was smaller than expected.  Again the numbers disagree here depending on the source, but border counts show that absolute tourist arrivals were around 200,000 – less than half the 450,000 that had been predicted.

Promise #3: “Green and carbon neutral!”

Another weak argument in favor of hosting a mega-event is that the environmental impacts can be neutralized somehow. A study entitled “Feasibility study for a carbon neutral 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa,” predicted that the event would generate 2.75 million tons of carbon dioxide, which could be offset at the cost of between $5.4m and $9m, and that by publicizing a carbon offset program, they could even raise awareness about climate change.  Also, other “green” measures would be taken, such as waterless urinals in the new stadium.

Biggest footprint yet

I’m about ready to make a sign and start ranting on the subway myself about this one.  The carbon emissions from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were eight times higher than they were in Germany in 2006 without even including the emissions from international flights to the location.  Why such a difference?  The main reasons cited are worse energy efficiency in South Africa and the geography of the location.  South African cities are very far apart, and the 64 matches were spread out between nine different cities.  Also, South Africa is geographically remote from attendee places of origin. Long-haul flights into the country represented 67.4% of the emissions total. Perhaps carbon footprint is one thing FIFA should consider a little more carefully when awarding the bid.

Carbon emissions is a global problem, so researchers and reporters paid attention.  But the skeptic can only wonder about the local environmental impacts of the mega-event on the host region of South Africa.  What happens environmentally when an influx of sports spectators descend upon a place for a few weeks?  They consume tons of water and power, then they generate tons of waste and sewage.  Preparedness involves a little more than the new stadium’s waterless urinals.

Promise #4: “Fun and patriotic!”

So, it turns out that the impacts of a mega-event on the overall economy, on tourism in particular, and on the environment are debatable. But, reply the yay-sayers, at least one thing is certain.  Hosting something like the World Cup can be a source of great national pride and unification for the host region’s residents.

People had fun and felt proud.

This skeptic agrees.  Ever since humans have been playing sports, we have wanted to stage competitions at the broadest level and largest scale possible. To be chosen as the host of such a competition is indeed an honor and a reason to get excited.  As I saw that day in London, the winning of the 2012 Olympic bid created a collective buzz that the bearded nay-sayer and his sign couldn’t kill. In the case of this year’s World Cup, South African reporter Rian Malan says it best: “I found myself caught up in the primordial business of waving flags, stirring national anthems, and watching our beautiful stadiums glowing like jewels in the African darkness on my television … such things are almost invaluable.”

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