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Sports in Poor Places May 5, 2014 Global, Print Edition No Comments on Sports in Poor Places

By Kamar Saint-Louis


To many individuals, sports are considered a fun way to stay healthy, as well as engage in competition. Having been an athlete for most of my life, I can attest that the rush that a participant gets from competition is one of the best feelings that one can experience. And for athletes, there is nothing better than competing on the world’s largest stage. Many athletes dream of representing their countries in large scale sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. And for those not competing, such events prove to be not only a source of entertainment, but also an opportunity express the pride that they have for their nation.

But what if I told you that sports could have other sociopolitical benefits, such as stopping civil wars, improving presidential approval ratings, and even ameliorating racial tensions? Of the many benefits that sport can confer to its participants and its fans in terms of competition and entertainment, it is perhaps its ability to confer political benefits as well that are perhaps most intriguing. Sports diplomacy is defined as “the use of sport as a means to influence diplomatic, social, and political relations,” and is often utilized as a way to approach and negotiate difficult and sensitive political issues.

With regard to sports diplomacy, a sociopolitical landscape that immediately comes to mind is South Africa. For the majority of the 20th century, South Africa was banned from participating in international sports due to their apartheid policy; this ban that was not lifted until the early 1990s, when the dismantling of apartheid began to occur. A few years later, South Africa was chosen to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which served as a coming out party of sorts for the newly unified nation; what transpired was honestly quite shocking.

Rugby union is not even South Africa’s most popular sport; that distinction belongs to soccer, which is the most played sport due to its popularity among the Black African and Coloured ethnic groups. These groups combine to represent 89 percent of the population today. Rugby is not even the second most popular sport; that spot belongs to cricket. Indeed because of rugby’s popularity with the Afrikaner ethnic group (comprising roughly 5% of the total population), it is only the country’s third most popular sport. The Springboks, the mascot of the national rugby team, was viewed as symbol of oppression by the predominately Black and Coloured population.

Yet despite rugby being a distant third in terms of its popularity as a sport, it still helped to assuage tensions that were still present during the nations first official transition of power in its history. At the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg, South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final, 15-12. In an unprecedented act, longtime political prisoner and recently elected president Nelson Mandela presented World Cup-winning captain Francois Steyn the trophy while wearing a Springboks uniform and baseball cap; this was especially significant given the aforementioned symbolism of the rugby team. It was an act of sports diplomacy that showed that Mandela was more than willing to move past the nation’s checkered past and into a new era. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was an example of success in terms of sports diplomacy; however, hosting large-scale sporting events can sometimes bring more costs than benefits.

This upcoming summer will present an interesting case study in terms of sports and its effect on a sociopolitical landscape. Brazil will be hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, an event that the Brazilian government has stated will improve the economic outlook of the country, ostensibly though the job creation from the construction of massive stadium venues, and the expected increase in tourist visits. So far the government’s gambit has not paid off; as an article from the Economist reports, the Brazilian economy experienced a significant slowdown in 2013, with GDP growing at a rate of 2.3 percent, compared more robust GDP growth of 4 to 5 percent that Brazil, one of the four BRIC nations, had seen in the past. Where has the “economic development” that was purported by the government been? Perhaps hosting the World Cup is not really about giving the country an economic boost, but about something else entirely.

In Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski’s New York Times bestseller Soccernomics, one of the major topics the authors study is the hosting of large-scale sporting events and the motivations behind them. Kuper and Syzmanski’s findings would surprise some individuals; most World Cups fail to generate profit and often generate significant losses. The building of World Cup stadiums, generally financed by taxpayers, tend to cost far more than expected. While stadium construction in Brazil was estimated to cost around $1 billion, the cost in recent years has ballooned to over $4 billion. And that just factors in construction; there are significant costs for the maintenance of these “super stadiums” that continue accrue well after the marquee event is over. Furthermore, when the tourists leave the country and are no longer buying tickets, those stadiums will never get filled. Many of Brazil’s citizens do not have the wealth necessary to pay for the expensive tickets, which will further exacerbate these losses. This begs the question; would it not be better for Brazil to use that money and spend it directly on issues such as their education system, roads and infrastructure, and the reduction of poverty (16 million citizens lived under the poverty line as of 2011)?

In observing the protests and riots that have taken place in Brazil over the nine months, it seems as though many citizens feel that the money is not being well spent. Last June, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian citizens took to the streets in the largest protests for a generation and brought three main grievances to the table: high living costs, poor public services and political corruption and greed. Why was the government using taxpayer money to build extravagant World Cup stadiums for visitors, when there were problems at home that had yet to be solved?

Kuper’s theory on the motivations behind the hosting of a World Cup or largescale sporting events is surprisingly simple: countries host tournament because they are fun and make their citizens happier. They are great way to boost a nation’s morale, with positive effects that can last up to six months after the event ends, according to studies that he and other researchers have conducts. Kuper’s hypothesizes that the Brazilian government is hosting both the World Cup and the Rio Olympics (in 2016) as a dual gambit to increase the level of happiness throughout the country. The main problem with this plan, as Kuper notes, is that for countries with a per capita income of under $15,000, like Brazil, increases in income tend to bring more happiness because they allow individuals to escape “sheer physical poverty”, as he puts it. It’s already clear that the World Cup will not increase income levels, and therefore won’t lift any of Brazil’s citizens out of poverty. This reasoning explains why there have been so many protests against government policies: how can money be being spent on World Cup stadiums when many individuals do not even have basic needs covered?

So the upcoming World Cup may in fact just be the Brazilian government’s (expensive) political plan to keep people happy and distracted from the nation’s many problems. It is probably not the most efficient way to do so – and yet, if the host nation were to win the World Cup for a record sixth time (as they are favored to do), then all bets are off.

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