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After the Cheers Die Down

Shanghai June 2010 photo from personal collection

Total Investment

2008 Beijing Olympics: $40 billion +

2010 South Africa FIFA World Cup: $5 billion+

2010 Shanghai World Expo: $45 billion

2004 Athens Olympics: $14.4 billion

Through competitive bidding processes, countries battle to host global extravaganzas like the Olympics and World Cup. Prospective hosts see these events as important opportunities to build nationalistic pride and bolster standing on the world stage. At such enormous costs, are the benefits really worth it? While national governments prepare cities with beautification campaigns, build new infrastructure, and rush to mask social problems, the focus is on building the “right” global image. Thabo Mbeki, a former president of South Africa, voices this hope, claiming the World Cup “will be remembered as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict.” The popularity of this belief is proven through the aggressive push from developing countries to host future global sporting events.

After the cameras and crowds return home, countries must face the reality of their huge investments. These investments rarely create sustainable benefits. World-class stadiums and upgraded infrastructure often remain underutilized. In China’s case, with vast cash reserves, the country can absorb the waste. But, what about less financially stable countries? Athen’s 2004 Olympics racked up a bill of more than $14 billion dollars. Some have cited this profligacy as part of Greece’s bigger pattern of fiscal irresponsibility. The last three hosts of the World Cup, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, had no problem absorbing the costs of hosting the event, but what about South Africa?

Critics and disgruntled citizens lament the ways the billions of dollars could have been spent. South Africa’s glaring social problems, including unemployment over 35%, surely could have been alleviated from such a large investment. Although South Africa is baring most of the event’s costs, FIFA stands to get most of the profits. Still, the overwhelming focus is on the intangibles. Over and over again we hear about the implications of hosting such an important event. Apparently, national pride costs a lot these days…

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