HE: Feeding the white elephants

For every iconic sports team, there is an iconic stadium or arena associated with it. The Lakers have the Staples Center, the old Yankees Stadium was sometimes called the “The Cathedral of Baseball” and Yale Hockey, of course, has the Whale. These places become part of the lore and narrative that we associate with their respective teams.

And the construction of major venues is even more important for major international competition as well. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics saw the construction of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, two impressive feats of engineering. For the 2012 Summer Olympics, London spent nearly £500 million building the Olympic Stadium, which will eventually serve as the home of the soccer club West Ham United. When we watch these events, the grandeur of the venues is almost as impressive as the competitions taking place inside.

However, after the initial hype has passed, the utility of these stadiums seems to fall off dramatically. China had to spend tens of millions of additional construction money to convert the Water Cube into a water park. The London Olympic Stadium, just completed in 2011, shut down recently for at least another three years so it could be converted into a multipurpose venue.

On the bright side, at least countries like China and the U.K. have the resources to turn the stadiums and fields into something useful for their people. But as developing countries start to host major athletic events, we should start to seriously discuss whether the associated infrastructure is truly worth the immense financial costs.

Take a look at Sochi, the most recent site of the Winter Olympics. Media reports indicate the event cost somewhere from $23 to $51 billion, with a significant share possibly taken by corrupt contractors and politicians. Selling over a million tickets to visitors and tourists, Sochi, a city of less than 500,000 people, almost became a ghost town overnight after the closing ceremony. Large numbers of hotels and other accommodations are unoccupied, while the fate of the athletic facilities remains in question. It is unclear if Sochi could turn into the kind of major tourist attraction that the Russian government envisioned it to be.

In the aftermath of international competitions, there is always the possibility that the infrastructure built for the events wculd turn out to be a white elephant: a costly project whose cost of maintenance outweighs its tangible benefits. While the grand architecture and modern facilities provide a boost to the psyche of the host nation, we should always ask whether they provide the long-term benefits that could justify their exorbitant costs.

Worst of all, the opportunity cost of infrastructure investments is massive. Every dollar spent on a new stadium is money that could have been spent on arguably more worthwhile causes such as education, social security and poverty reduction. As the host of the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil has had to confront these problems in the face of a slowing economy.

The New York Times recently reported that billions of dollars of infrastructure investments across Brazil, ranging from transportation systems to luxury hotels, aimed to prepare for the World Cup and the Olympics, have been abandoned as the Brazilian economy tanked. These lavish projects, in hindsight, simply do not provide any tangible benefits to the ordinary Brazilians who have to pay for them. After the last tourist leaves in 2016, Brazilians may have to confront the possibility that the massive investments would have been more productive elsewhere. Asking people living in poverty or near poverty to pay for our entertainment seems unfair and cruel.

The sad thing is, the massive price tag of international competitions likely wouldn’t fall anytime soon. Countries, especially developing ones, are willing to blow piles of money to impress organizers and show off their national pride. Moreover, groups like FIFA and the IOC are rife with corruption, which further reduces the likelihood of cost control. Recently, FIFA was accused of trying to sabotage an internal investigation into corruption charges over the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who once championed transparency, was among those who tried to halt the investigation.

Many have simply accepted that bribes and corrupt dealings are an inevitable part of the bid process. Forget about the high-minded goals that international competitions are supposed to embody — brotherhood, peace, individual fortitude and so on — these events have more or less become money-grabbing opportunities for those involved. Billions of dollars flow into the pockets of corrupt organizers, while the citizens of the host countries rarely see the benefits that these events are supposed to bring.

As time goes on, we should be aware of the legacy that the seemingly impressive stadiums and arenas will leave. I fear that someday, our descendants will look at the athletic infrastructure we have left behind and see it the same way we see the Roman Coliseum: an impressive monument dedicated to commemorating a lavish and ultimately unsustainable lifestyle.

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