Winners & Losers 2010: The boondoggles – Sports tourneys

Instead of status and spinoffs, host countries got debts and discord.

&#9660 The last image is always a golden one, and so, months later, the first thing that comes to mind is Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal, or the Spanish soccer team holding the Jules Rimet Trophy above their heads. And if you focus only on those postcard memories, perhaps the billions poured this year into three of the world’s biggest international sporting tournaments seem worthwhile. But look harder.

The recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi were meant to showcase India as a global power and choice tourism destination. Instead, they were a PR disaster. A footbridge collapse injured 23 people and raised concerns about the country’s infrastructure. Just days before athletes were to arrive, world media splashed images of filthy competition venues and accommodations. There were reports of child labour and other travesties, and once the Games were underway, attendance was astonishingly poor. The event was a black eye for its host country on which it spent $16 billion, after corruption and mismanagement inflated costs from an original budget of some $500 million.

South Africa was also plagued by stories of unpreparedness after it became the first African nation chosen to host the World Cup. Though the venues were ready on schedule, the run-up was fraught with strike threats. Once the tournament got underway, stadium guards and stewards protested over their wages, claiming they received even less than the modest sums they’d been promised. Police broke up the protests with tear gas, and the workers were essentially fired. After the event, South Africa’s traditional late-summer strike season was much more heated than usual. If the World Cup had invited South Africans — black and white, rich and poor — to celebrate together, the failure of the billions spent on it to trickle down to the 40% of the population living on less than $2 a day only exacerbated the existing tensions in one of the world’s most unequal societies.

The Vancouver Olympics also stumbled. The organizing committee, to its credit, exceeded its sponsorship goals despite the fact that sponsors GM, Canwest, and Nortel entered bankruptcy before a single medal was awarded. Early setbacks — the death of a Georgian luger, miserable weather that forced ticket refunds — led to lousy press, but the Games played to huge audiences and finished on budget. However, the athletes village, converted to a condo project after the athletes left, has been a financial fiasco. The units aren’t selling in the slow real estate market, the social-housing portion has come in comically over budget, and the city’s taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Every time a bid for one of these events is mooted anywhere, studies trumpet the economic benefits sure to follow. But tournaments are never really sold on their economic return on investment. The real ROI is intangible — the new sense of stature or unity or pride that India, South Africa and Canada were supposed to enjoy while the sports organizations and sponsors lined their pockets. And that’s fine. But remember the price tag, financial and otherwise, on those warm-and-fuzzies, and in this economic climate, ask yourself: was it worth it?