An Olympic distraction

2014-02-20 00:00

WHICH planet does Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula inhabit? Having recently berated the national football team in language hardly likely to inspire greater effort, he has dug up the hardy perennial of a bid for the Olympic Games, this time the 2024 edition. He believes it could follow the Commonwealth Games of 2022 as a dress rehearsal, as it has been guaranteed an African venue.

Mbalula’s reported motivation for this ambition is the belief that such events are good for infrastructure development. That was certainly the case for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. But multi-discipline events like the Olympics are of a different order of magnitude.

Cabinet recently ruled out such bids, which run into the hundreds of millions, on the grounds that the economy is not strong enough, so it is not at all clear why Mbalula should revive the idea so soon. One possibility is that this is a distraction from generally gloomy political and economic news, an election gimmick perhaps. Rationality suggests that it should not appeal to any part of the electorate. But a look back at the sparse criticism that preceded the Fifa World Cup provides another perspective.

Those who raised questions amidst the fevered expectations about 2010 ran a major risk of being accused of a lack of patriotism. Government, business and the media relentlessly reminded us how many days and even hours there were to go before the opening ceremony, the enormous impact the World Cup would make, and the legacy to come. We have now had nearly four years to consider the last and its substance is hard to pin down. The event itself is hardly mentioned these days and, rightly or wrongly, pales into insignificance compared with the memory of Madiba magic at the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a moment of national redemption.

The two obvious benefits left by 2010 are communications infrastructure in metropolitan areas and tourism. But if the road and airport development was indeed necessary, it could have happened without sport; and the reason for the inflow of tourists almost certainly has more to do with a highly favourable rand exchange rate than increasingly distant memories of football.

On the downside we have an oversupply of stadiums that are not paying their way. The extreme example remains Cape Town where the stadium at Green Point (annual deficit R47 million) mocks the lack of facilities on the football-supporting Cape Flats. Of the much-vaunted legacy, there is little evidence in terms of the growth of the game at any level. In any case, most of the profit disappeared overseas to Fifa and the multi-national corporations that used our country as a picturesque, low-rent stage for their profiteering licensed by a clutch of temporary laws. How much of our sovereignty would we have to surrender to stage an Olympic Games? And, as predicted, much of the construction work for 2010 was blighted by corruption.

What is striking is not that all this happened, but that it was forecast. After the event, commentary on such matters swiftly moved on and the opportunists who made wildly inflated claims have never been held to account. It is common knowledge that bids for international sports mega events routinely make exaggerated claims about the likely benefits, especially socio-economic outcomes such as employment. The emotion surrounding sport seems to induce a state of mental torpor, which happily accepts speculative figures that would be treated with high scepticism elsewhere. And it was remarkable that in mid-June 2010, foreigners and locals alike who used the space loaned to Sepp Blatter enjoyed a level of policing, safety, transport efficiency and general comfort that was not the normal experience of South Africans. In short, we learned nothing of major or lasting benefit from Blatterland 2010. And, leaving a trail of public debt, Fifa laughed all the way to its Swiss bank with R13,97 billion in tax-free profit.

Commentators have recently made a great deal of the lack of trust and the growing gulf between people and politicians. What better example of the latter than an Olympic Games bid? Sports mega events are good for politicians: plenty of photo and grandstanding opportunities, promises of largesse, and flag-waving moments. But not far away people burn municipal property including libraries, a symbol above all of educational opportunity and the opening up of individual life chances.

In most cases people go to these extreme lengths not since they are inherently violent or anti-social, but because they have lost faith and hope in government. The reasons for this are complex and cannot be reduced to the ANC’s default position of blaming rampant criminality. Much derives from the party’s current political culture, which is directly responsible for dysfunctional water supply, illegal power connections, and sewage flowing through people’s backyards. But yet again we are apparently considering an Olympic Games extravaganza. Even Nero modestly played a musical instrument while Rome burned.

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