SXsports: Mega-Events and the Damage Done

How events like the Olympics and the World Cup destroy the host cities

When most Americans think of Sports Mega-Events (SMEs) like the Olympics or the World Cup, we think of the tremendous feats of athletic accomplishment and the opportunity to compete against, and learn more about, other cultures.

In their most altruistic forms, these international competitions offer a great case study in how sports can bring the world together, and inspire generations to discover their own opportunities for success. But in nearly every example from the last 50 years, these games have been crippling to the countries that hosted them financially and culturally.

Four experts on the history of the impact of these SMEs got together for the SXsports track on Sunday morning. The session was moderated by Ben Carrington, a sociology professor at the University of Texas who focuses on the politics of sports. The panel featured Jules Boykoff – former United States Olympic soccer player and political activist, Piara Powar – the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, and Dave Zirin – one of the United States’ most accomplished sports journalists. The discussion was the most thoughtful and informative session that the Sports conference has put out to date.

Courtesy of SXSW

The problems with SMEs can be distilled into three separate issues. According to Zirin they are: “Debt, displacement, and the militarization of the public space.”

Financially speaking, the Olympic games have been an unmitigated financial disaster for every host nation of the last 50 years. Typically host nations agree to split the original cost estimate 50-50 between the taxpayers and the Olympic sponsors. But the original estimate never holds true. “Every Olympic games since 1960 has gone over-budget by an average of 160%” Boykoff explained, adding that 88-90% of that overflow becomes the immediate debt of the taxpayer. The aftermath is a country left broke financially and metaphorically, without money to spend on roads, hospitals, and schools. The only thing they have to show for it are antiquated Olympic-specific sports stadiums that become obsolete after two months of use during the games.

The rampant gentrification and outright displacement of locals is another devastating consequence of hosting a SME. Boykoff mentioned that 5 million people were displaced from their homes to make way for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That’s more than the combined population of Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, kicked out of their homes to make way for buildings called “the Bird's Nest” or “the Water Cube,” edifices that are now for all intents and purposes, obsolete.

Those who aren’t displaced by force have to deal with skyrocketing rent and property taxes. Barcelona is often held up as the model of what the Olympics can do to revitalize a city. The 1992 games turned a rundown port town into a thriving city and tourist destination for years to come. But as Powar explained, that was the exception, not the rule. “Barcelona was a myth – a one-off” adding that the 1992 Olympics are the only games of the last half-century that have proved to be anything but a boondoggle. And even in Barcelona – the olympic’s golden child – a 150% rise in city property values forced many of the area’s oldest residents to leave for the suburbs.

The upcoming World Cup in Qatar is the most egregious example of the human toll these SMEs take. The current estimates are predicting that approximately 4,000 workers will lose their lives during the construction of the soccer stadiums, either due to exhaustion, safety issues, or poor working conditions. Many of the dead will be de facto slave labor, kept in internment during the build up to the tournament. The panel asked how you can justify watching such an event. It’s an impossible question to answer.

The third concern shared by the panelists was the tendency of these mega-events to give legitimacy to authoritarian governments, and push the most democratic ones further towards becoming police states.

There was a quote looming on the big screen display to the left of the panel that gave remarkably blunt insight into the World Cup’s thought process. The quote was from Jerome Valcke, the secretary general of FIFA, and he was discussing the challenges associated with having the World Cup in countries with civilian oversight. It read: “I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup… When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018… that is easier for us organizers.” But as Zirin pointed out, one of the biggest dangers of the World Cup and the olympics is the fact that will “make democratic places more authoritarian.”

To wit, Boykoff shared his memories of the 2012 London Olympics, when local police stocked up on riot gear and guns. “They put surface-to-air missiles on roofs of London apartment buildings.” Residents were alerted to the presence of anti-aircraft munitions being positioned on their residential rooftops via a note slipped under the door. Zirin pointed out that Brazil hired Elbit – an Israeli security firm – after the firm pitched themselves as being able to provide “the same security in Brazil as they do on the Gaza strip.” It makes sense – a country that’s concerned about keeping local protests under wraps from the international media goes out and hires the experts in the field. But the unrest was real, if underreported.

The panel also touched on some very valid reasons for wanting to keep SMEs around in one form or another. There are inherent benefits to these international competitions that serve to humanize people who would otherwise be viewed as statistics. They are worth saving, but not without radical overhaul. In their current form, they are irredeemable.

Sports Mega-Events: Do They Have a Future?

Sunday, March 15, Four Seasons

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