Wednesday 20 February 2019

The Olympics are a great way to waste public money

Big sporting events are vastly expensive vanity projects for politicians and leave little legacy

The two main worldwide sporting festivals, the World Cup and the Olympic Games, have become Championships of Waste on an epic scale. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
The two main worldwide sporting festivals, the World Cup and the Olympic Games, have become Championships of Waste on an epic scale. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

The demonstrations in Brazil against the Olympic Games are hardly a surprise. Just two years ago, the World Cup provoked outrage in the same country at the colossal waste on white elephant stadiums in cities where there are no top-flight football teams. There has been no subsequent use for several of these venues, which were constructed with public funds and much corruption.

Half-a-billion dollars was spent on a 72,000-capacity stadium in the capital, Brasilia, which is now used as a depot by the municipal bus company. Brazil is a country in recession, with severe economic and social problems, and Rio has seen more billions spent on facilities for once-off athletics events in a city famous for its slum housing and struggling to find resources to combat the Zika virus.

The two main worldwide sporting festivals, the World Cup and the Olympic Games, have become Championships of Waste on an epic scale.

Russia spent no less than $50bn (€45bn) on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, much of it allegedly siphoned off by politically connected construction firms. But the gold medal for the whitest elephant must go to Athens.

Greece's hosting of the 2004 Olympics contributed to the country's descent into unsustainable debt and economic collapse. The government even built a brand-new baseball stadium, a sport which was unknown in Greece and new to the schedule in 2004 and which has since been dropped as a regular discipline. The venue has been abandoned to the weeds, a permanent monument to waste and corruption in the birthplace of the Olympics.

Politicians seem to lose all contact with reality when offered these once-in-a-lifetime money-wasting opportunities. The UK government spent €15bn (in the middle of a severe budget squeeze) on the 2012 London Olympics, delivering career-critical exposure for Mayor Boris Johnson but also an actual reduction in tourist arrivals. Cue justifiable complaints from out-of-pocket hoteliers and Oxford Street stores.

The main stadium is only now to be occupied on a regular basis when West Ham United move this coming season to the venue in Stratford.

The British authorities made quite a fuss about the 'permanent legacy' in terms of regeneration in east London, which would follow the once-off sporting carnival.

Last week the mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, had this to say: "The international Olympic Committee is the second most venal organisation in the world, after Fifa.

"In Rio, they have lived up to their reputation. They are an appalling organisation with no interest whatsoever in legacy. After the games are over, whoosh and out they go."

Countries like Britain can at least afford the legacy of debt. But Brazil or South Africa, which hosted the 2010 World Cup, have more immediate priorities. In the South African city of Durban, the long-established Kingsmead stadium holds 52,000 spectators and has hosted cricket test matches for decades. The government built a brand-new facility which holds 56,000 just one mile away, clearly visible from Kingsmead.

The most popular Durban soccer team, AmaZulu, played there for a while but averaged 5,000 per home game in their last season in the top division, got relegated and have returned to their modest former home. The local Sharks rugby team have a lease until 2056 on yet another large stadium in Durban and will not move either. Recent events advertised at the government's spectacular new Mabhida stadium include a wedding fair and a craft beer exhibition.

Granted the dubious privilege of hosting the 2004 Euro soccer championship, the Portuguese government built a fine modern stadium at Faro in the Algarve. There are no top-flight soccer teams in southern Portugal, hence, unsurprisingly, no matches at the shiny new facility.

The Gibraltar national soccer team plays occasionally to empty stands, since there is no stadium in Gibraltar.

Don't ask why Gibraltar has a national soccer team.

It is insane to build permanent stadiums or other facilities to host a handful of fixtures for just a few weeks. Nobody would build a cinema to show movies for four or five nights. Most stadiums around the world are under-utilised anyway but these Olympic, World and Euro building sprees produce predictable under-use - what should be termed designer waste.

The number of cities willing to bid for the Olympic Games has been falling in recent years and countries already equipped with adequate stadium facilities have been hosts for some of the recent soccer tournaments.

It made good sense to hold the recent Euro championships in France: the stadiums, in the main, already existed and the cost was confined to refurbishment. There are top-flight professional soccer teams in each of the French cities and there will be some continuing value from the money spent.

The soccer governing bodies would have shown some social responsibility had they decided that no countries would be awarded major competitions if white-elephant stadiums were to be the predictable result.

Instead, the 2022 tournament was awarded to Qatar, a tiny desert sheikdom with 40-degree temperatures and no stadiums at all.

The International Olympic Committee should long ago have opted for a single permanent venue, or a small rotation of venues, confined to recent host countries.

It is surely no accident that both the Olympic movement and world soccer have been riven with corruption scandals and both organisations have been exposed as self-perpetuating rackets accountable to nobody.

Reform at Fifa may finally be under way, but only in response to corporate sponsors pulling the plug, unwilling to associate their brands with the continuing scandals.

It would be foolish to assume that Irish politicians are fully immune to the temptations to which so many in other countries have succumbed. Croke Park and the Aviva in Dublin are not heavily utilised and both required generous taxpayer subsidies.

While the old Lansdowne Road stadium was being reconstructed, all soccer and rugby fixtures were accommodated at Croke Park, along with the normal schedule of GAA matches. This practical experiment neatly demonstrated how many large stadiums are needed in Dublin - namely one. But the city nearly had three. Remember the Bertiebowl? At a cost of €700m, the then government persisted doggedly for many years with the bizarre scheme for a new mega-stadium in west Dublin for which there would have been no fixtures.

It was only the opposition of Mr Ahern's coalition partners, the since-disbanded Progressive Democrats, which finally blocked the project.

The Rugby World Cup in 2023 could be coming to Ireland. The Government, along with the authorities in Northern Ireland, is supporting a bid for this month-long event, a much smaller affair than its soccer equivalent. It was hosted last year by England and no new stadiums were built - the matches were readily accommodated at existing stadiums, including soccer grounds and the Millennium stadium.

The next renewal is in Japan in 2019, a rich country already equipped with many fine venues and able to afford a little extravagance. In Ireland, the temptation to waste taxpayers' money on stadiums should be resisted - Samoa versus Uruguay at rugby is unlikely to be a big seller and the available stadiums will include redevelopments already under way in both Cork and Belfast. There are lessons from the riots in Rio.

Sunday Independent

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