Olympics debt trap

2015-08-03 11:57
Kuben Chetty

Kuben Chetty (File)

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ANYONE who has watched any edition of the Olympic Games would be able to give one example of the spirit of this extraordinary athletics tournament.

Jesse Owens’s four gold medals at the 1936 games were extraordinary as they were won in a Hitler Germany that viewed Owens as a lesser athlete because of the colour of his skin; at the 1968 games American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved hands in the Black Power salute during the 200-metre medal ceremony and who can forget the images of British runner Derek Redmond, who tore his hamstring halfway through a 400 m semi-final race in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. Redmond refused to give up and rose to finish the race despite the pain. But the race will be remembered most for the runner’s father who helped his son complete the race. These are unforgettable moments, not only for those who are lucky enough to get a ticket to the events but to the hundreds of millions watching on television sets around the world.

But the Olympic Games, like other global events including the Fifa World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, is proving difficult to find host countries.

Before any country contemplates hosting the games, one major financial hurdle has to be cleared. This hurdle is the knowledge that despite a global audience, ticket sales and tourism revenue, the host country will make a loss in hosting these tournaments.

The tournaments are sold by the organising body on the premise that it brings attention to a country and its beauty to a worldwide audience who will return to the home countries and encourage others to visit. There are also job creation opportunities. For developing countries, like South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, tens of thousands of South Africans were able to buy tickets at affordable prices, allowing those ticket-holders to watch the world’s best footballers on the biggest stage live.

Years later, some of the stadiums built at Fifa’s request are struggling to remain financially viable. Many of the jobs created were temporary and foreign visitors remain difficult to attract. Even though the dollar/pound/euro exchange rate favours these tourists South Africa is still a far-off destination and airfares are costly. But countries are becoming increasingly aware of hosting these mega tournaments.

This month Boston revealed that it had withdrawn itself from consideration to host the 2024 Olympics. The city’s mayor Marty Walsh cited cost overruns, which he said were virtually guaranteed to exceed the original expectations.

Even though there are benefits to hosting a mega tournament, the truth is that no one is in a hurry to host them.

There are some exceptions — Barcelona 1992 and London’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2012 are examples where the hosting of the games proved successful for all involved. The Russian city of Sochi’s hosting of the Winter Olympics last year has proved to be disastrous. It cost $50 billion (R634 billion) and while a few benefited, Russia’s economy continues to pay the price for a few days of global attention. In 2004, Greece hosted the Olympic Games, spending $10 billion on the event. Today the Greece economy is on a dangerously downward spiral.

Before the 2014 world cup in Brazil, protesters made it clear that they did not believe the developing country needed to host the showpiece event. Instead they wanted their government to focus on issues like unemployment and inequality. Many countries have learnt lessons from Athens and Sochi — perhaps the most important is that once you announce your bid, bodies like Fifa and the IOC employ bullying tactics to force host countries to overextend themselves. When the Fifa and IOC bosses leave, it is the host that is saddled with debt and stadiums that may become white elephants.

For developing countries like South Africa, the struggle to deal with unemployment, inequality and poverty, should be the priority. Durban’s bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games looks like it will be successful — the city can stand toe to toe with any other in the world when it comes to what it has to offer. Unfortunately, in this fight there are no other contenders.

There are growing suggestions that the Olympic Games should be given a permanent home in its place of birth — Athens. The stadiums and infrastructure the city built 10 years ago are neglected and disused. Hosting the event in that country would help to boost its economy. And what of the Commonwealth Games? Why not London as a permanent host city?

If radical decisions like these are not considered then we could see the end of the Commonwealth Games very soon, followed by the Olympics.

The world needs the Olympics because it can inspire future generations of athletes. But it must be done in a way that does not cause irreparable financial damage to the host country.

If it is too expensive to host the Olympic Games in different venues, then, as many have suggested, why not hold the games in Greece permanently?

It would be a pity if the need for lucrative endorsements and pandering to the whims of politicians allows these events to come to an inglorious end

Read more on:    olympic games

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