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It’s just a game: mega-events and development

It’s just a game: mega-events and development

Scoring an own goal

Mega-events such as the Olympics and World Cup are renowned for bringing people together for what are essentially the world’s biggest parties. For developed and developing countries alike, they can also be the ticket to demonstrate both technological and economic power.

But are these parties worth paying for? They are certainly popular with voters; polls show that 80% of Britons approved of London 2012. Yet, the multibillion dollar investments rarely bring the long-term benefits promised by organisers. Those who profit most tend to be the private sector and the country’s elites, whilst few of the benefits trickle down to the communities with the greatest need.

Most worryingly, when millions of people are watching, mega-events prompt host countries to conceal their injustices from the world rather than seriously tackle them. All too often, this results in a wasted opportunity for advances in human rights and development.

marcelo mega-events
Marcelo scores an own goal in the opening world cup game against Croatia, in São Paulo, 2014. Photo from Youtube.

The mega myth

Organisers often tout a mega-event as a golden goose that can galvanise development and propel economic growth. As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) put it, “The London 2012 Games have definitively served as a catalyst for development…which would otherwise have taken decades to achieve.”

Yet, there is scarce evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, most economists agree that the Olympics, which almost always go over budget, are an investment not worth making. Take the mantra that the games act as a tourist tractor beam. In reality, the large numbers of spectators who flock to host cities tend to be offset by “displaced” visitors who stay away because of the games. Furthermore, the period during the games is often marked by a lull in attendance to theatres, shops and hotels due to local people staying indoors. Throughout August 2012 Britain actually suffered a 5% drop in foreign visitors compared to previous years. Likewise, the long-term benefits of mega-events tend to be relatively small, with little resulting investment or use for the facilities in the long-run.

Given their huge cost, the lavish spending of taxpayers’ money on these white elephant projects contradicts the austerity craze that has swept the world. It’s a far cry from the rhetoric of “living within our means” repeated by the Conservative British Government, or the $17bn austerity package delivered to the people of Brazil. For a country in the midst of an economic downturn, the Olympics are unlikely to sustainably mitigate extreme poverty, crime or the housing crisis. Money to pay for the games could have been better spent in a number of other areas, such as education, healthcare or transport.

london mega-events
London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony. Photo from Wikimedia.

Widening the gap

Brazil also remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, which the Olympics will do little to address. In fact, as much of the benefits brought by the games will go into the pockets of the rich, it’ll likely widen the gap.

Whilst Rio 2016 will see some limited improvements to the city’s choked public transport, the newly built hotels and luxury apartments will not alleviate the housing crisis. What’s more, it will be Brazil’s billionaire class, owners of the construction giants behind these luxury property developments, who will be reaping the rewards. Property tycoons such as Carlos Carvalho will be going for gold by crafting an exclusive paradise for Rio’s “noble” elite, one of many projects with little public benefit.

maracana mega-events
The Maracanã stadium is the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies in Rio. Photo from Wikimedia.

Moreover, the right of businesses to profit from mega-events is strictly reserved for the multinational sponsors, appropriately awarded to champions of fitness like Coca-Cola and McDonalds. Strict legislation imposed by the IOC forbids non-sponsors from selling around the Olympic site or even advertising images and slogans associated with the games. These “economic exclusion zones” establish monopolies over goods by banning local businesses from even selling chips. During South Africa’s 2010 World Cup, FIFA ensured that street vendors could be targeted as criminals simply for selling bottled water within 1km of the stadium.

What this therefore amounts to is a transfer of wealth from public to private hands. Whilst offering a measly 2% contribution to London 2012’s budget, corporations benefitted from monopolies, exclusive trading rights and tax breaks. As the taxpayer foots the majority of the bill for mega-events, it’s the private sector that enjoys the feast. It is little wonder then, that Brazil’s World Cup was marked by a stream of protests against huge spending on sporting events instead of public services.

fifa go home mega-events
Demonstration in São Paulo on the opening day of the 2014 World Cup, Brazil. Photo from Wikimedia.

There’s no poverty here

If mega-events have few overall benefits, why would anybody want to host them? As well as being popular with the electorate, they are also a chance for host countries to flaunt their economic, technological and cultural prowess to the world. When the whole world is watching, it is vital that the hosts are perceived as vibrant, bustling centres of innovation and development. And nothing dulls the sheen of multi-billion dollar parks quite like the sight of abject poverty. It’s no surprise then, that governments often choose the easiest option of erasing unpalatable scenes from the picture.

Brazil has been particularly flagrant in its efforts to sweep the dirt under the rug. Using a multi-pronged approach to purge the poor from the gentrified parts of the city, Rio has cut 11 bus lines to prevent those living in the favelas from accessing the Olympic site. A wall has been erected with the sole purpose of concealing poverty whilst the police have used excessive force to “pacify” the favelas, killing 2600 people since 2009.

police favela mega-events
Pacifying Police Unit (PPU). Photo from Wikipedia.

Host countries have a long history of blithely ignoring the rights of the poor in order to weave the illusion of development. Prior to South Africa’s 2010 World Cup, people without homes were rounded up and dumped in a shantytown called “Tin Can City,” whilst Beijing was swept clean of migrant workers before its Olympics. Furthermore, “eviction” is a word synonymous with mega-events; communities are forcibly displaced, in many cases simply because they are unsightly. Around 200,000 people are estimated to be at risk of eviction in Brazil, whilst an estimated two million people, mostly in China, have been displaced due to the Olympics in the last 20 years. The message this sends is clear: poverty is not an issue of injustice to be solved, but an inconvenience to be ignored and brushed aside.

Mega-events are never going to be panaceas, but they must do more to benefit wider society. Crucially, they should be opportunities to directly address poverty and human rights issues, instead of simply ignoring them. Nor should mega-events be prioritised over other more pressing issues such as tackling poverty, unemployment or poor public services. In an austerity climate when cuts to essential services are common, they are not worth the cost.

Featured image shows the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue on Corcovado mountain, which overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo from Pixabay.

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Tom Jarman

Consultant at Zimele UK
Tom Jarman works for Zimele UK, a small charity in Wales, and blogs about international development at

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