Wasting billions of dollars, time and time again, to stage self-indulgent sports spectacles is no way for any society to build shared prosperity for the long term. But just try explaining that common-sense economic logic to the sports-crazed cities that keep lining up to purchase a moment of fleeting fame – and that end up squandering vast sums, by building use-once-throw-away “white elephants” for one-off events like the Olympic Games or the World Cup soccer tournament.
The sports-industrial complex continues to beguile the gullible and the grandiose, even though scholars have long warned of the futility of sports-event-driven spending. Beijing spent about $40 billion to host the 2008 Summer Games, and Sochi spent upwards of $50 billion to stage the 2014 Winter Games – while Brazil spent $20 billion to host (and heartbreakingly lose) the final rounds of 2014 World Cup soccer. Not to be outdone for extravagance and excess, Qatar reportedly plans to spend as much as $200 billion for the 2022 festivities.
Like the deluded leaders of declining Rome – who distracted their once-industrious city into passivity by pacifying the populace with what the poet Juvenal derided as panem et circenses: "bread and circuses" – modern-day civic leaders are allowing their obsession with media-moment athletic fame to trample economic logic. The scale of their civic hubris – and the malign self-interest of the construction firms, financiers, flacks and fixers who goad credulous Olympic-wannabe cities into wanton overspending – is insightfully dissected in a valuable new book, “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,” by Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College.
In recent remarks at the World Bank, Zimbalist deplored the reckless rush that stampedes many cities into bleeding their civic coffers in the quest for Olympic notoriety. The saddest example may be the city of Montreal, whose debt from the 1976 Summer Games burdened the sorry city for 30 years.
Yet the suckers keep taking the bait. Boston, said Zimbalist, recently put forth an extravagant multibillion-dollar bid for the 2024 Summer Games – and only later, after the initial headlines and hoopla had abated, did more complete statistics reveal the likely scale of Boston’s folly. And, of course, the Olympic organizers would again stick the long-suffering taxpayers with the bill for any revenue shortfall.
Zimbalist’s logic is a wake-up call for those who somehow imagine that “this time is different” – that one-shot wonders might somehow produce long-term economic benefits. Some occasional exceptions suggest how very rare it is that optimists are rewarded: London, for example, may have gained a much-needed morale boost after its successful 2012 Summer Games, and two (but only two) Olympic festivals actually turned a profit – both of them in Los Angeles, which shrewdly re-used some of its 1936 Olympic facilities when it again played host to the Summer Games in 1984. But for most cities – Montreal in 1976, Sarajevo in 1984, Athens in 2004 and many more – the money spent on soon-to-crumble stadia, ski jumps and swimming pools was a diversion from urgent human needs and productive investment.
Zimbalist makes a compelling case – yet beyond the diagnosis of the malady, one seeks a prescription to cure it. Can such Olympic megalomania be tamed? Are there other ways to build, and pay for, worthy sports facilities that honor the spirit of the Olympic Games while avoiding the overspending that bleeds their hosts dry?
A potential solution arose amid Zimbalist’s recent World Bank discussion. Rather than build one-shot Olympic facilities that are destined to be discarded as soon as each extravaganza is finished, why not build just one enduring set of permanent Olympic facilities that can be refurbished and re-used, year after year? Build it right, and build it only once: That way, the cost of building and maintaining an Olympic complex could be spread over generations.
Pursuing that solution seems especially timely right now, and here's why. Where is the historically logical place to locate such a permanent Olympic site? Why, in Greece, of course, where the Olympics originated in 776 B.C. and continued until 393 A.D. There could be no more authentic place to have today’s marathoners run than in Marathon itself – no more meaningful place to have skiers schuss than on Mount Olympus, or to have boaters ply the very waters that warmed Odysseus’ odyssey.
The great-power G8 have been bickering about geopolitics, the economic G20 have been fretting about growth, and the aspiring G24 have been jostling for policy influence. But this summer’s ultimate contest in international relations has focused instead on the elite G32: the group of 32 countries that sent the world’s top-performing soccer teams to the final brackets of the World Cup tournament.
Global rivalries based on fine-tuned football finesse – not dominance in diplomacy or brute force on the battlefield – framed this summer’s highest-profile competition for international supremacy.
Amid the lengthening late-summer shadows that herald the final days before the September rentrée, thoughts of the midsummer marathon surely warm the memories of World Cup-watchers who recall the thrills of the June and July festivities before the JumboTron – with throngs packing city squares worldwide, as well as filling the World Bank Group's vast Atrium (and television hideaways all around the Bank) on game days.
By the time of the final match, even many committed fans of other national teams seemed to admit that, in the end, Germany deserved its hard-earned victory – winning 1-0 in overtime against resilient Argentina – thanks to the team's technical skills and tightly coordinated teamwork.
The tournament’s most dramatic highlights – the agility of goalkeepers Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico and Tim Howard of the United States; the spirited hustle of underdogs like Ghana and Croatia; the epic 7-1 shellacking suffered by humbled host-country Brazil; the heart-stopping offside call against Argentina that nullified an apparent final-match goal – will deservedly dominate fans’ conversations as they await the next World Cup spectacular. And videos of the overtime heroics of two substitute players – André Schürrle, who made a picture-perfect cross to Mario Götze, who seamlessly slid the ball from his chest-trap downward for a left-footed volley past Argentina’s goalie Sergio Romero – are destined to be replayed forever.
But before the fine details of Germany’s triumph recede in fans’ hazy memory, it’s worth recalling the long-range strategies it required for the new champions to envision winning the crown. The success of the Nationalmannschaft required even more than the midfield mastery of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the exuberant playmaking of Sami Khedira, and the goal-scoring prowess of Thomas Müller. Along with disciplined precision on the field, Germany’s success was also driven by organizational skill on national planners’ drawing board.
A decade in the making, victory was patiently built through the Deutscher Fussball-Bund’s national plan that reportedly cost a billion euros or more – creating a coordinated national system of youth leagues, sports facilities, training regimens and individualized skill-building for players selected to advance toward the Bundesliga. Insightful long-range planning, born of adversity, paved the way to success: Germany’s football establishment realized that its system needed a sweeping overhaul after being soundly defeated in 2000, when Germany was knocked out of the European Championship without winning a single game. Germany had not won the World Cup since 1990, but the newly refocused German football system marshalled its long-term resources. After years of sharpening its competitive edge, Germany's hyper-efficient system has now earned the sport’s ultimate prize.