Monday, December 14, 2009

South Africa Wasting Money on World Cup?

Here's a news flash:

All those big, gleaming stadiums South Africa is building ... might not be particularly useful after the 2010 World Cup.

They might even be, in the expression used by contemptuous critics of big sports events, "white elephants." A waste of precious resources in a country ravaged by AIDS and dealing with an enormous gap between rich and poor.

Who says so? The maker of a documentary about South Africa and the 2010 World Cup. And some of the people he interviewed in the film.

It is tempting to dismiss the man behind the documentary as a sports killjoy. But he is pressing right on the sore spot of our consciences when a nation spends lots and lots of money on ... games.

How appalling this all is generally is a function of how rich a country is.

Or how poor it is.

By African standards, South Africa is fairly well off. Per capita annual gross domestic product (GDP) is $5,700, according to the CIA World Factbook figures.

By global standards, however, South Africa is significantly below the global mean of $9,100 and miles behind First World countries where per capita income is $40,000, $60,000 or more -- and where it is far more equitably distributed.

If it's the United States or Japan putting on a big event, there are complaints. Certainly, that money could be used in a better way. But wealthy countries can put on big events basically in the margins of their economy. It isn't an either/or proposition, usually.

When the country is less wealthy, the choices that were made ... begin to seem harder to defend.

In South Africa, Fifa-approved stadiums were, basically, nonexistent. So South Africa built a bunch of them, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Billions, actually.

The documentarian asks the questions of the righteousness of all this, and he has a number of South African politicians decrying the financial outlay for football.

Those are fair questions. And sports fans can react in a couple of ways.

1. This is the World Cup/Olympics. We don't care if someone starves.

2. Sure, that country is spending a lot of money on stadiums (or infrastructure or hotels), but the attention brought to the country by this big event will pay for the outlay, down the road, in tourism or in intangibles like "respect" or "face." (This was how China approached the 2008 Olympics. "This is our coming out party, and we don't really care if the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube are empty for the next five years.")

Many of us find ourselves whipsawed between those two concepts. Feeling a bit guilty ... that we are enjoying this ridiculously expensive event so much.
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