Monday, September 14, 2009

Predicting the Legacy of 2010

The Local Organizing Committee of the 2010 World Cup put on a panel discussion today in Soweto, near Johannesburg, to talk about what the event will leave behind for South Africa.

Here is the Johannesburg Sunday Times' version of the story.

Economic benefits seemed to be talked about a lot. From how many millions an estimated 400,000 tourists will spend ... to the general infusion of capital into the country. How many soccer fields have been built or might be, seems to have struck the reporter as significant.

I believe even bigger issues, more amorphous but more lasting and potentially more world-changing, are at stake.

To wit: Can Africa, in general, and South Africa in specific, successfully stage the world's greatest sports event?

Some would say South Africa already has proved, during this or that rugby or cricket event, that it can stage a big event.

But any sports event that isn't the Summer Olympics is dwarfed by the World Cup. This is the acid test for South Africa.

And SA 2010 this will determine, in the eyes of billions of non-Africans, whether the host country and continent are up to it -- in terms of organization, housing, transport and safety.

No one who puts on a World Cup or a Summer Games should underestimate what sort of impact the event has, globally. Not when hundreds of millions of people are following any given match, and nearly every country in the world is aware of the event.

Consider the 2008 Beijing Olympics. If there was any doubt at all, 14 months ago, that modern China was capable of prodigies of organization, from leading-edge venues to the movement of masses of visitors, the Beijing Olympics put them to rest.

Conversely, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics still carry the whiff of failure about them, because of transportation problems over the first few days and because of a bombing at a popular downtown park in the middle of the event.

This World Cup, if anything, is even more significant for the organizers because it is the first truly global event to go to Africa.

It is not a stretch to suggest that Africa has been viewed by most of the world as a sort of laggard across the board -- socially, politically, economically. We can debate the "whys?" and whether they are fair or not ... but the basic conception of Africa as home to various degrees of Third World chaos seems ingrained in international thinking.

Changing that perception is within the reach of the 2010 World Cup. If the event unfolds with precision, if visitors are able to move smoothly between cities and venues and their personal security is maintained, if South African appears to be home to competent and friendly people ... how the planet views the country and even the continent could be changed in the span of one month next summer -- quickly and probably permanently.

The flip side?

Ragged organization, stadiums that don't work, transportation that seizes up, tourists getting mugged ... that sort of World Cup could reinforce negative stereotypes already held about Africa, and give them fresh momentum and the word-of-mouth validation of tens of thousands of foreign witnesses and thousands of members of the print and electronic media.

Global perceptions. That is what is at stake, at South Africa 2010. A concept far bigger than counting up tickets sold and soccer fields built and trinkets peddled.

A World Cup leaves a legacy. Positive, negative or something in-between. The event is too enormous and too widely viewed for it to be forgotten in one year. Or 20.

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