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What legacy can countries hope to achieve from hosting the FIFA World Cup and the IOC Olympic Games?

With the Brazilian World Cup a recent memory what motivates countries to divert huge amounts of resources into hosting mega-events such as the World Cup and Olympics? In this article Professor Richard Tomlinson considers China’s, South Africa’s and Brazil’s motivations for such an undertaking, and the accompanying socioeconomic factors that are an inherent part of any mega-event hosting process.

For the foreseeable future the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) predominate in the hosting of mega and major summer sporting events. Here different motivations prevail – including Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

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In the case of China, the foremost objective was to enhance the legitimacy of the Communist Party. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games represented a prominent moment in a parade of nationalistic events on which this legitimacy, in part, is founded. In addition to such motivations are discussions regarding China’s coming out party, recognition of China as a world power, and so on.

In the case of South Africa, at a 2005 Department of Finance modeling workshop on the economic benefits of hosting the World Cup, it was recognized that while hosting the World Cup would exacerbate inequality, ‘the best we can hope for is that 2010 does not hurt the economy’. This would only be possible if costs were tightly controlled. Instead stadiums were dished out as if it was Christmas.

The South African government was essentially concerned to demonstrate that Africans could deliver a successful mega event. In his letter to Sepp Blatter in South Africa's Bid Book, ‘South Africa 2010’, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki wrote ‘We want, on behalf of our continent, to stage an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo …’
The legacy of the World Cup lay in changing perceptions of Africa and Africans, which one might say that to some degree it did so for South Africa. 

It appears that Brazil similarly feels identity insecurity. In 2009 President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, explained that:

For the US an Olympics is just one more Olympic Games… But for us it is something that really will be the reassurance of a continent, of a country and its people. Because, here in Latin America, we always feel we have to prove how to do things.

Lula points to another commonality among the BRIC countries. Arising from their desire for influence is a shared need for prestige. The need for prestige creates common vulnerabilities, vividly demonstrated by the protests against infrastructure expenditure for the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

Accompanying the media reporting of the protests has been a tremendous social media campaign against the displacement of people from favelas for event facilities and, often attributed to the World Cup, paramilitary violence in the Favelas. This displacement has the appearance more of serving property developers and government as part of a deliberate process of gentrification.

Here there is a conundrum. Is displacement for event facilities and transport infrastructure simply to be rejected? For the Barcelona Olympics there was such displacement and low-income neighbourhoods were destroyed (along with its industrial revolution architecture). A visitor to Barcelona, a few decades after the event, must surely wonder whether this displacement and destruction was worthwhile. Put differently, if two decades hence Rio could boast of the beauty of urban Rio de Janeiro rather than the mountains and the (polluted) beaches, would the displacement and destruction be worth it?

Disregarding fretting economists, were the legacy of the World Cup to accentuate national pride and identity, as occurred in the 2006 German World Cup, and were the legacy to include city building in the manner of Barcelona, I would wonder whether scepticism regarding Brazil’s hosting the World Cup and the Olympic Games should be set aside. But where does one draw the line? For example, if displacement occurred with adequate compensation, how much displacement is too much? These questions are relevant to all prospective hosts of mega events, but less so to Brazil due to its history, its identity, being clouded by inequality, disrespect for human rights and state violence.

More on mega events

Sustainable mega-events in developing countries: experiences and insights from host cities in South Africa, India and Brazil
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2011
The hosting of mega-events has a tremendous effect on developing and emerging countries. These can be positive in terms of economic investment, job creation, skills development and international branding but also can be negative in te...
Richard Tomlinson
Professor Richard Tomlinson is Chair in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne and has written extensively on the hosting of mega-events by developing countries.