By Taylor Marvin
The June opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching, but not all Brazilians are happy that their country will be hosting soccer’s premier event. Despite Brazilians’ futebol-mad reputation, a February poll found that only 52 percent of Brazilians supported hosting the Cup. By April that number had fallen below fifty percent. In addition to construction fatalities and fears of heavy-handed policing during the Cup, many residents of the South American giant are concerned about the event’s cost, and believe that funds devoted to what the government of President Dilma Rousseff has dubbed the Copa das Copas or ‘Cup of Cups’ could be better spent elsewhere. Rousseff, who is heavily favored to win what is expected to be a rough second term in October, certainly hopes that the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics will be a high point of her term in presidency. But even if the World Cup and Olympics unfold successfully and protests are kept to a minimum, Brazil’s efforts to host these events have not gone as smoothly as their backers would have hoped.
The problems associated with hosting large international sporting events — rushed construction, ballooning costs, and public opposition — are not limited to Brazil. The days before the opening of this winter’s Sochi Olympics were marked by widespread media reports — or, less charitably, mocking — of substandard construction and a frantic last-second push to finish building accommodations. Less immediately, the Sochi Olympics, which were the most expensive in history, drew attention to Russia’s widespread corruption problem, which challenges the Games’ overt goal of demonstrating Russia’s modernity and encouraging foreign business. The Sochi Games also leave behind a fantastically expensive resort city no one seems to know what to do with. While it is debatable whether Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine is related to the Sochi Games, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the threat of retaliatory sanctions certainly doesn’t help.
Elsewhere, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup requires truly staggering construction in the oil-rich Gulf State. Conditions for the migrant workers tasked with building these facilities and infrastructure projects are so bad and so many workers are expected to die that it is possible to seriously raise the question of whether FIFA can be considered a mass killer. South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup was also troubled by serious worries about the country’s ability to host such a massive event.
If hosting massive international sports grows more expensive and difficult, will governments eventually decide that it simply isn’t worth it? After all, noble-minded talk of the thrill of sport and international cooperation aside governments’ desire to host these high-profile events is really driven by the international prestige and attention they bring. If the risks of spiraling costs and mass protests — particularly in the age of social media — put this prestige in doubt, governments may be more hesitate to spend such vast sums. The almost gleeful mocking of unfinished Sochi construction must have raised many eyebrows in countries scheduled to host their own international sporting events. Will governments ever look at the precedent of negative reporting on Sochi’s unfinished hotel rooms and Qatar’s thousands of dead laborers and simply say ‘no thanks’?
This question is particularly relevant for democratic governments. Autocracies, like Russia and Qatar, can simply decide that event-driven gains to their prestige are worth the possible costs to their image or domestic unrest over construction costs. Autocratic countries, less constrained by human rights concerns, also have greater ability to preserve their own image by keeping demonstrators away from the international media. In democracies, however, these risks are more difficult to shrug off, particularly on the domestic level — while Brazil’s Rousseff remains heavily favored to win reelection, protests driven by anger over the Cup did real damage to her polling, damage she is surly aware of.
Of course, despite their costs the recent Olympics Games in Beijing, Vancouver, London, and Sochi, and the South African FIFA World Cup, were all ultimately successful. These events experienced cost overruns, delays, and ultimately leave behind brand-new facilities and infrastructure that are difficult to find a use for once the games are over, but all of these events suffered no major disasters and brought positive global attention to their host countries. This positive coverage is why it is difficult to imagine a large-scale move away from hosting massive international sports events by democratic governments. Despite negative attention like the #sochiproblems Twitter hashtag that trended in the opening days of the Winter Olympics, international media coverage of international athletic events follows a script. In the lead up to the games, media focuses on construction and the dramatic possibility of delays. Because this news is not yet a major story, this coverage tends to be delegated to the international news that most consumers do not closely follow. As the event approaches and journalists arrive to the host city, they fill their time by reporting on facilities problems, adding audience-drawing drama to an otherwise uneventful waiting period. But once the matches actually start, sports reporting dominates. Barring a serious disaster, this feel-good coverage of athletics and the glamor of opening and closing ceremonies is what viewers around the world will remember after the events are over. The negative legacy of these events, like corruption and useless facilities, are much less reported on once international journalists have left.
As long as something does not go seriously wrong, both international audiences and Brazilians will likely remember the 2014 World Cup for the soccer, not delays and cost overruns. From the perspective of international prestige, that’s a win. Similarly, the brutal truth is that it is difficult to imagine a world where anonymous worker deaths leave a greater impact on audiences than the highlights of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. As long as media coverage of these events follows the same script, governments will likely keep chasing the perfect Copa das Copas.