World Cup Breeds Bad Mix of Nationalism, Populism

EspañolFew events inspire the passion and national fervor of international sports. Every four years we see a cycle of both the Summer and Winter Olympics, and the Soccer World Cup, along with a myriad of other events such as the Commonwealth Games. Seemingly without fail, every four years we also see the same routine of massive spending on sports complexes, red carpets rolled out for sporting elites, and a mountain of debt foisted on taxpayers.

The justification for these grand games has always played on the latent populist nationalism that exists in every country. The general public loves to see players from their team compete against those from other nations. Governments love the games, as they turn the world’s spotlight on their nation. This is especially true of nations and cities that would otherwise never enter the world’s consciousness. Would anyone have heard of Sochi had the Olympics not been played there?

More worrisome is the misconception that the games will help a nation or region’s sagging economy. The evidence for the economic benefits of hosting international sporting events is dubious at best. In 2009, Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson noted that the benefits of these events are often exaggerated by event supporters by using inflated economic multipliers. Montreal took 3 decades to pay off the US$990 million debt it incurred for hosting the 1976 games and was forced to raise taxes to do it.

In the wake of hosting a mega event, nations are also faced with the prospect of vast venues that have no further use than the games themselves. The internet is full of pictures of the deteriorating venues from Sarajevo to Athens to Bejing. International sporting bodies, both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, demand shiny new facilities that would otherwise make no sense to build, and have no use, or will be underused, after the games.

Sarajevo bobsled track
Sarajevo’s bobsled track. (CityLab)

All of this says nothing of the effects of the building of these new sports venues. In Brazil, up to 200,000 people will face eviction in the name of new venues for the World Cup and the Olympics. Step back for a second and think about that. In the name of international sports events, 200,000 people could lose their homes, forced out because their government volunteered to take on the burden of the Cup and the Games. Is it shocking that, as Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel reported, chants of “[Expletive] you, Mrs. President” echoed through Arena Corinthians during Brazil’s opening round match? Protesters are in the streets, and rightfully so.

The good news is that the populist nationalism of these international sporting events is fading, and fast. Last month, reports surfaced that the number of contenders for the 2022 Olympics were dwindling, as voters came out in opposition to bids in Krakow, Poland, and Stockholm, Sweden. The list, once long, is down to two real candidates, Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan. More recently, the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar has been called into question amid corruption allegations.

International events such as these are a loser for the people of a host nation, that is certain. While this is true, there are clear parallels between how international mega events and local sports decisions are made. Politicians often tout the economic benefits new sports stadiums will have on the local economy. They use the passion of fans for their team for support, threatening that without millions in new spending, the peoples’ beloved team may leave.

Given how ingrained teams are in the local culture, team owners know that they can use this leverage to get ever more benefits from the public, regardless of the dire fiscal straits of some cities. Even bankrupt Detroit, Michigan will spend hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds on a new hockey stadium for the Red Wings. Homes and businesses were seized in order to build the stadium for the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets in recent years, and the same thing is underway for Major League Soccer’s DC United.

Politics and sports have an uneasy relationship that is far from easily resolved. Sport mega events are wildly popular, but taxpayers rightfully do not want to pick up the tab for hosting them. Politicians, on the other hand, love the notoriety that comes from hosting them. Both parties have long used nationalism and populism to draw economic rents from the population. While this is true, the push back against these events, including the World Cup protests, show that the population is coming to realize that they are the ones left with the bill at the end of the day.

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