Home / Clark Booth on Sports /

The Olympics and the World Cup: is there a limit to what nations will pay to bring the games home?

Here in the New World we have our pet sporting pageants, which, in our hopelessly naïve sense of superiority, we deem thoroughly matchless.
There are the annual snappy hockey and basketball festivals, currently cresting to another merry climax; the collegiate follies called “March Madness,” however stilted, plus those bloody bowl games; the many quaint and traditional events celebrating non-team games, even horse racing and road-running; above all, there are those fabulous annual conclusions to professional baseball and football seasons, albeit entirely misstated to be, respectively, “World” in scope and “Super” in quality.

Charmed as we may be, this all must be risible in the heavens. Maybe in its entirety, it’s a helluva package, and while there are no nations left under the sun not obsessed with sports, none has more outlets for the expressing of such inexhaustible passions than ours. There’s no argument there. But in the end, this, too, is true. Taken individually, even collectively, it is small change compared with the great, titanic, truly global events, none of which have anything to do with baseball or football.

Actually, there are several; maybe more than you think. You may be further amazed to hear the world championship tourney in stuffy old Cricket can induce four of the world’s continents into a trance for over a month. If you care to regard Chess as sport, and many do, there have been times when a showdown of chessmasters has more deeply mesmerized the entire planet. But the ultimate examples remain the Big Three: Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics, World Cup. 

And none is bigger or crazier than the Futbal Festival, now on the eve of renewal down in Rio. With its undisputed and near transcendental reach to billions to the ends of earth, it makes America’s so-called mega-events that leave a couple of hotbeds in a temporary lather look puny by comparison, hard as that may be for us to admit. It just doesn’t get bigger than the World Cup.

Yet the lead-up to this one in soccer-mad Brazil, where passions for the “beautiful game” are exceeded only by anger over the tourney’s horrific costs, has been a colossal embarrassment, not just to the game and its governing body, FIFA, but also by implication to all games everywhere. As well it should be. Is this what sport ought to be about?
There’s no accounting yet for the total cost of the honor to this promising republic, if much on the rise still burdened by the Third World curse of having to run harder and faster while enduring more pain and suffering just to catch up after centuries of retarded growth. But it’s clear the price tag in the end will prove monumental. Times had been improving in Brazil, but recently less so.  Third World Nations tend to be more vulnerable to the caprices of cyclical global economic antics. Unrest simmers; demand for improved basic services rises.

Then along came the World Cup to greatly aggravate the scenario. Love for soccer may run deep in Brazil but it turns out maybe as many Brazilians are equally passionate about sustenance, health-care, social welfare and justice, education, to name a few realities of life. The uprooting of the poor and destruction of their neighborhoods to make way for new stadiums has not gone over well. Protests, especially in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo,  have been bitter and increasingly violent. Even the wildly popular Pope Francis, though a confessed soccer nut, denounces what he deems Brazil’s mis-guided priorities. 

Brazil is a democracy. Dissent won’t be crushed glibly as it was at Sochi, where Winter Olympic controversies were brutally suppressed by Russia’s Putin government. In Brazil, where dissenters vow to be heard and government can’t easily gag them, there’s the potential for still greater embarrassment, both for a country yearning to look good and a game that doesn’t need the grief, either. This spectacle should be fascinating.

All the more so because what’s happening  at this World Cup is seen as a precursor of what we can expect at the 2016 Summer Olympics, also to be anchored in Rio and increasingly dreaded. Such is the International Olympic Committee’s fear of Brazil’s ability to handle the task it’s said the IOC’s crafty burghers are quietly dispatching unprecedented technical and financial aid, expertise, and manpower to Rio in the desperate effort to get preparations – woefully in arrears – back on track. Good luck! 

The embarrassments are piling up. Just last month, Seth Blatter, FIFA’s highly officious Grand Poohbah, finally admitted the good old boys messed up when they awarded the 2022 World Cup games to Qatar, where on the year’s coolest days it’s much too hot to play championship soccer. It has been leaked that FIFA’s own inquiry determined there was strong opposition to Qatar in FIFA’s own ranks. Yet somehow a deal was still brokered with the filthy rich burghers of Qatar.  Increasingly, hanky-panky is suspected. You may recall the runner-up to that hotter than Hades Gulf State in the 2022 bidding was the United States, never a FIFA favorite.  The 2018 tourney, by the way, will be in Russia. How is that looking these days?

Slimier still are revelations now coming from the New York Times, with customary reportorial brilliance. They concern a brewing, and potentially devastating, scandal allegedly having to do with match-rigging orchestrated by corrupt referees in warm-up games leading to Rio’s grand finals. Purportedly, there have been death threats and cover-ups and an African referee who, after suspiciously officiating a recent match in South Africa, is alleged to have deposited $100,000 in $100 bills in a Nigerian bank.

Wow! Such juicy stuff! No way could you make this up.  Even the slight hint of a bag job at the World Cup – if the mere suggestion should gain legs and begins to travel – would make Baseball’s 1919 Black Sox scandal look like a garden party.  And what do you think that might do to the Brazilian festival, now only days away?

The over-riding point is that these ultimate and brinkman-like sporting mega-events that reap billions for the promoters yet virtually strangle the hosts inspire deep political resentments along with epic sporting theatre, all while thrilling billions the length and breadth of the globe. Even as they stoke nationalistic tensions, may have finally begun to price themselves out of existence. Amen!
A superb example is the current discussion about choosing a host nation/site for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The nominees are supposed to be presented for the selection of a winning bid next month. Right now, there are none.

It’s a process that has been remarkably informative and revealing. Davos, Munich, and St. Moritz, all swanky former sites of the Winter games sites, were invited to compete but declined. Stockholm, ever the perfect site, applied then withdrew fearing horrific costs. Officials of Krakow seemed eager until 70 percent of that lovely Polish city’s sensible voters hooted down the notion in a referendum.  The Ukraine has expressed interest. That might work, eh.

The ideal location would be Norway, site of glorious past Winter Olympiads, and the IOC, mindful of how magical the ’94 Games at Lillehammer turned out, would roll over for Oslo in a nanosecond. But Norway is balking. Again from the Times, we have their IOC rep, Gerland Heiberg, wondering if the games have somehow become “too gigantic.” He has in mind, obviously, the $51 billion price tag on the recent Sochi edition, although it’s inconceivable that the so wise and prudent Norwegians could ever be guilty of anything so dumb.

“Some people think that kind of money should be spent on hospitals, schools, roads, and so forth,” Mr. Heiberg says. And not all of them are Norwegians, says I.

Right now, there are two willing and apparently able contenders, neither likely to strike the fancy of the IOC; Beijing, not normally associated with winter sport although cold enough, and Almaty, which you’ll be pleased to learn is the capital of Kazakhstan, high on the frigid and remote steppes of Central Asia. It’s my dream to live long enough to observe the Winter Games in Kazakhstan.

So it is that we wonder, might the classical sporting opus, best represented by the three big-boppers, be fast becoming an endangered species? Could be!