By Neil deMause
While I haven't done an exhaustive search, I'm pretty sure no angry mobs set fire to anything major in Brazil last night. The protests against the World Cup, which briefly drew international attention before there was any actual soccer to write about, have dwindled down to the occasional protest march blocked by throngs of riot police before getting anywhere near the soccer venues.
Or as Reuters put it -- clearly disappointed about one recent march in the capital of Brasilia -- "The protest fizzled out with no arrests."
This does not mean that people in Brazil are no longer angry. Even if some have decided that they prefer watching Neymar on TV instead of getting pepper-sprayed point blank in the eyes, there is still plenty to be angry about:
• Spending on World Cup preparations, which ballooned to $15 billion, swallowing entire regions' development budgets and helping spark widespread strikes over low wages.
• An estimated 200,000 people evicted from their homes, either to make way for World Cup construction projects or because their neighborhoods were designated "high-risk" areas.
• The cancellation of planned new schools, hospitals and other public projects that were initially promised but which fell off the construction agenda once the budget ran dry.
• A sputtering economy after the fizzling of a boom created by Chinese demand for cheap soy and iron ore.
…and, last but not least:
• $900 million in government spending on police technology, including surveillance drones, to ensure that anyone upset about all this doesn't cause too much of a ruckus.
Most of those numbers are drawn from Dave Zirin's new book, Brazil's Dance With The Devil, which attempts to lay out the long history of exploitation and economic inequality that underlies this sprawling nation of 200 million. ("Brazil is not for beginners," a Brazilian historian warns him at the outset of his project.) After a couple of solid centuries of mayhem and military coups, Brazil's recent economic success and liberalization raised hopes -- which were then dashed when the entire national treasury became focused on erecting or renovating 12 stadiums, some of which had already finished their four allotted World Cup matches before the knockout rounds even began.
Of course, it's Brazil, where corruption and bureaucracy are somewhere between a way of life and the national sport. (Zirin notes an old joke about God creating a land of golden beaches and mild climate, ending with the punchline: "Wait till you see what kind of government I'm going to put there.") But none of this -- with the possible exception of protestors setting fire to things -- is unique to Brazil.
Cities from Atlanta to Beijing have used the Olympics as a bulldozer for urban renewal, evicting whole neighborhoods to make way for the raft of swimming centers and velodromes that are required of any host city. And while the Olympics claim to draw tourists and make money rain from the skies, they've been a quadrennial tide of red ink for some time now: Sydney and Athens each lost billions on the Summer Olympics in 2000 and 2004, respectively, before Sochi shattered all records with its $51 billion price tag.
The World Cup hasn't fared much better. The need to have "modern" stadiums spanning multiple cities is a recipe for cost overruns. South Africa's 2010 stadium costs rose from $2.1 billion to $5.3 billion. Brazil -- in building a $300 million, 42,000-seat stadium in a city unreachable by rail or highway with no existing pro soccer team -- may have set a new bar there. Even the United States, which only spent a few million dollars sprucing up existing stadiums for the 1994 World Cup, ended up seeing its host cities losing between five and nine billion dollars in economic activity compared to a normal year, according to economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson. Any benefits, meanwhile, have been impossible to discern, according to economists.
So why does anyone want to host these things? For that, let's turn it over to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former union organizer turned two-term Brazilian president who lobbied hard to win both the World Cup and the Olympics. "Today is the day that Brazil gained its international citizenship," said Lula when the IOC announced that it was bestowing the 2016 Summer Olympics on Rio. "I think this is the day to celebrate because Brazil has left behind the level of second-class countries and entered the ranks of first-class countries."
As Zirin makes clear, while "former union organizer" might make Lula sound like a wild-eyed radical, his policies as president -- including increased spending on the poor and corporate-friendly austerity measures -- put him firmly in the "neoliberal" camp exemplified by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Still, there's clearly a pride factor that overwhelms all economic sense, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum: If we get the Olympics/the World Cup/an MLS franchise, then no one will laugh at us at international conferences anymore.
The resistance has mostly come from the general public, which is proving less enthused about having these sporting mega-events -- and their attendant bills -- land on their doorstep. In addition to Brazil protesting the presence of their beloved futebol, we've recently seen a spate of cities bail on proposed bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Munich, Krakow and the Swiss resort towns of St. Moritz and Davos all withdrew from bidding when voters rejected referendums on the 2022 Games. Stockholm jettisoned its bid after the city government vetoed the budget as too pricey. And Oslo, one of the remaining front-runners, could be next, with polls showing 60 percent of voters opposed and a vote set for the fall.
Is the world finally rising up and declaring, "Hell no, we won't pay to build curling sheets"? Or is it just a momentary blip in the long game of IOC haggling?
Rob Livingstone, who has run the independent Olympics-watch site Gamesbids.com since 1998, says he expects the current bidding lull to be temporary, noting that there were similar dips following the 1972 Munich Massacre and the 1976 Montreal financial disaster. "This situation has been made toxic by Russia," says Livingstone, "first with the Sochi 2014 precedent that has given the misleading perception that it costs $50 billion to organize the Games, and second with its incursion on Ukraine that has virtually wiped out Lviv's otherwise competitive offering with decent support."
Still, the upshot is the same. If Oslo can't turn around public opinion in the next few months -- something that Livingstone notes Tokyo was able to do before ultimately winning the 2020 Summer Olympics bid, albeit only by suffering through a tsunami and earthquake in the interim -- then he expects Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, to get the nod, pretty much by default. (Beijing is also in on the bidding, but not expected to make the final cut.) Almaty didn't even get out of the first round of bidding for the 2018 Winter Games, but now looks like it could be the only horse left in the 2022 race.
"It will be very good for our people," Almaty city representative Andrey Kryukov said in April. How do you say, "Olympics go home!" in Kazakh?