Brazil: The Circus costs Plenty, so No Bread for the Hungry

Sporting Mega-Events

What the Protesting Brazilians Learnt from Their BRICS Compatriots

The legendary Pele got an earful from the hundreds of thousands of protestors on the streets of Brazil who refused to heed his appeal to “forget” the protests and support the national football team. Unthinkable as it is, does it indicate that popular protests have finally overcome their inability to challenge the sporting mega event, that the modern-day “circus” is now seen for what it is: a scam of massive proportions?

Sharda Ugra ( is senior editor, and has been a sports journalist for almost 24 years.

This article was published last week in the Web Exclusives section of the EPW website. This article is the expanded and revised version of what appeared on the website, fi rst-world-problems-brics-graduated-tothe- sports-big-leagues-and-now-regret-it/

On the night Brazil beat current world champions Spain to win the Confederations Cup football final, Brazilian coach Luis Felipe Scolari was asked a loaded question. About what it was like playing football at a time Brazil was shaken by street protests, some violent, against institutional corruption and lopsided public expenditure. Scolari responded with fury. “Not my area”, he said and, after asking the journalist if he was English (which he was) barked, “So what happened before the Olympics over there? Maybe you want to take a look at your own country before saying there’s something wrong with mine.”

The Confederations Cup victory aside, June 2013 will go down as the winter of Brazil’s discontent, sweeping along in the heart of its anger, football and the Rio Olympic Games of 2016, the two events expected to pitch-fork the country into global acclaim. These two Brazilian sporting showpieces, the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have, however, turned into something else.

Putting Futebol in Its Place

A crowd of 5,000-odd that protested near the Maracana Stadium on the night of the Confederations Cup final, was drowned out by cheering fans and street parties that followed the victory. The days leading up to the final, though, had been different: 50,000 clashed with police a few miles from the stadium in Belo Horizonte where Brazil and Uruguay were playing their semi-final. In the capital Brasilia, there were peaceful yet more symbolic protests on the day, where the crowds kicked footballs over a police cordon towards the Brazilian parliament, the Congress.

Scolari’s churlish reply about the London Olympics and “not my area” was his instant retort following his team’s emphatic and impressive win. Until that, Brazil’s players had been far more sympathetic to the protestors with its rising star Neymar, saying in his Instagram microblog, “I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest”. Once the flush of the Confederations Cup victory has died down (along with Scolari’s anger), the questions asked by Brazilians throughout June are bound to return. The first protest had centred around bus and metro fare hikes in Sao Paulo, but in the space of three weeks, the outcry around the country grew over failing social services, rampant corruption and misplaced expenditure. The crowds grew from tens of thousands to those totalling a million-strong on 20 June in many cities, with the World Cup and the Olympics turning into symbols of everything wrong with the government and the country’s elite.

Until now, most criticism in countries that host football World Cups or the Olympics have tended to emanate from a relatively small fringe group, usually social workers or environmentalists who object strenuously to escalating costs and tax burdens. In Brazil, however, what the world saw was mass public protest – on a gigantic, unprecedented scale – against the two biggest and richest sporting events on the planet. On a scale that fittingly almost belonged to the dizzy perch that the Olympics and the World Cup football occupy in the hierarchy of “eventism” and sporting gigantism.

That there has been a roar of outrage around the football World Cup is revealing. It has come from a nation tied in to the sport, which writer Alex Bellos (2003) calls, “the strongest symbol of Brazilian identity”. In FutebolThe Brazilian Way of Life, Bellos argues, “no other country is branded by a single sport…to the extent that Brazil is by football”. The June demonstrations proved that Brazilians have put their beloved football in its place. Firmly behind what eventually matters more: education, jobs, health services, security.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) president Sepp Blatter were told so in uncertain terms during the opening ceremony of the Confederations Cup when they were booed by the crowd; Rousseff deliberately stayed away from the final. The world’s most celebrated footballer and the symbol of Brazilian excellence, Pele was shouted down after saying (Leahy 2013), “Let’s forget all of this mayhem that’s happening in Brazil, all of these protests, and let’s remember that the national team is our country, our blood”. Social media was scathing: “Pele, your ignorance is in proportion with your footballing genius”; “Go to the hospitals, take a bus with no security, then I want to see if you keep saying stupid things”. For Brazilians to say that to Pele, under whom Brazil won three of their five World Cups, is like Indians treating Sachin Tendulkar with utter contempt.

Finding New Hosts

The consequences of June 2013 will play themselves out for Brazilians between now and the World Cup kick-off in 2014. The most beneficial fallout on the rest of world, though, would be if these events finally call time on the gargangtuan size and cost of world sport’s high-priced “mega-events”, particularly in their newly-found homes: developing nations and their growing economies.

Between the first modern Olympics in 1896 and London 2012, of the 27 summer Olympics, 23 have been held in the developed “West” including Australia. The only exceptions have been Tokyo 1964, Mexico 1968, Seoul 1988 and Beijing 2008. The number of bids for the Olympics has been decreasing over the last 20 years. In 1993, the five candidate cities for the 2000 Summer Olympics had turned to four in 2009 for the 2016 Games. For 2020, the list is down to three – Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo. The decision will be taken this September and if the International Olympic Committee’s preference for taking their high-maintenance mega-event to “new territories” is any clue, Istanbul could be the favourite choice.

Unless Brazil’s warning signals have hit home.

It is no coincidence that in the last five years the “BRICS” nations have either bid for or hosted mega-sporting events.

– Brazil will host the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics;

– Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 football World Cup;

– India staged the 2010 Commonwealth Games, bid for the 2014 Asian Games and, despite its weak footballing structures, is once again bidding for the under-17 World Cup football;

– China hosted the 2008 Olympics;

– South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup football.

In 2018, PyeongChang, Korea will stage the Winter Olympics. The rivals to India and its under-17 football World Cup are Uzbekistan, South Africa and Ireland. The 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar.

Years of economic grind have perhaps left developed countries with a more realistic, hard-nosed appraisal of what hosting mega events really involve. In October 2012, a new coalition government in the Netherlands scrapped the country’s bid for the 2028 Olympics, built on the romantic idea of hosting the games after a 100-year gap. The new government’s policy blueprint however said hosting the Games brought “financial risks. There is little support for this in a time of crisis and austerity.”

In March this year, a state referendum in the Swiss canton of Graubünden rejected the proposal to have Davos and St Moritz bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The irony was lost on no one: Switzerland is the home of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), its headquarters based in Lausanne. Some of the IOC’s own “fellow citizens” did not believe the claims that the winter Olympics would “help tourism and boost the local economy”.

‘The Big Owe’

There lies the classic “booster” claim that lures countries and cities to bid for mega events. Along with promising upgraded sporting infrastructure, the booster offers civic add-ons like improvement in airports, roads, public transport. What should be civic and national administrative duties in the first place are turned into privileges made available to mega event hosts. Tied in with this comes the growing economy’s desire to advertise its arrival among the “high table” of nations with the creation of “world-class” host cities.

A 2009 paper in the journal Economic Affairs reveals the inaccuracy of more than one ex ante impact study around the hosting of either the Olympics or the World Cup football. Jonathan Barclay (2009) writes,

It is interesting to note that the growth in the number of impact studies conducted has coincided with a surge in competition in the bidding process for these events…indeed it is probably no coincidence that most of the studies have been completed after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics which was the first to make a substantial profit.

It is perhaps as noteworthy to recognise that Los Angeles ‘84 was probably the last Olympics to make a real financial profit. In fact Montreal 1976 required more than a quarter of a century to pay off its debt; the nickname of its centre-piece Olympic stadium going from the “Big O” to “the Big Owe”.

The storyline of mega events in the new millennium has turned into a tired, formulaic script, which in real terms, has dire results on real people. The development of either sport or the economy becomes peripheral, the mega-event becomes a private sector gravy train whose costs of operation are borne by public funding. Residents of New Delhi, host city for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, can see patterns and predictive paths in Brazil 2014 and 2016.

When a bid is won, citizens are promised that the mega event will involve “not a single” dollar/rupee/real of public money. As cost overlays and delays pile up, the national exchequer is leaned upon to restore national “pride” and prevent the country’s global reputation from being that of a laggard. In New Delhi, the Games Organising Committee had been expected to generate private sponsorship worth Rs 1,200 crore (approximately $200 million at the time using an exchange rate of Rs 55 = $1). Four months before the Games, they had merely generated Rs 342 crore ($62 million) before the government had asked leading  public sector firms like the oil companies to chip in (Sobhana 2010).

This could have been a refrain from Athens 2004 or even London 2012. Hosting the 2004 Games cost Greece $11 billion, twice the amount budgeted, of which $7 billion were billed to taxpayers (Malkoutzis 2012).  The collapse of the Greek economy may not have been directly related to the Games, but in December 2011, even IOC chairman Jacques Rogge told Greek newspaper Kathimerini (Georgakopoulos and Spanea) that it could “fairly” be said that  “the 2004 Olympic Games played their part [in Greece’s debt crisis]…If you look at the external debt of Greece, there would be up to two or three per cent of that which could be attributed to the Games”.

Delhi’s Experience

Paying little attention to what the Olympic footprint does to host economies, Rogge had a year before informed thrilled Indians during the Commonwealth Games that India had “set a good foundation stone for the Olympics bid”. With a straight face, Rogge said, “a successful Commonwealth Games can help India mount a serious bid for the Olympics”.

Despite London’s aim to be a new millennium, sustainable, green Games, in April 2012, Britain’s National Audit Office (2012) said that public sector funding of London 2012 had tripled while private sector contributions had dwindled to 2% of the total bill of £11 billion. Its post Games report billed the public sector funding package at over £9.2 billion, with more than £500 million spent on security. Again, months before the Games, the private firm given the security contract threw up its hands and confessed that it could not supply the personnel required.

As New Delhi prepared to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games, conscientious objection around it, particularly from Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Hazards Centre, pertained to escalating costs, the flouting of environmental and labour laws and, like in Beijing 2008, displacement of the marginalised. These could have been the refrains from previous mega-games. The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions’ (COHRE) report (2007) says nearly 7,00,000 people in Seoul were evicted from 48,000 dwellings due to the Games’ redevelopment projects. The predicted figure from the same study for Beijing 2008 was expected to be more than 1.5 million people evicted. Five years later, the Chinese government continues to deny figures from independent authorities and it may never be known exactly how many people were relocated due to the Games.

Along with the classic “tourism”, “economy” and “employment” boosters, the other most-bandied about catch phrases by the mega event public relations machine is the mega event’s “legacy”, which usually means the creation of new stadiums (which become mandatory requirements of cities and countries awarded mega events) and their post-mega event use. The London Olympics build-up prompted a BBC TV comedy show called TwentyTwelve centred around a fictional “Deliverance” team appointed for the Games. Amongst them was an earnest “Head of Sustainability” whose fervent catch phrase was, “Sustainability is not the same as legacy. It is not.” Once the buzz of hosting a mega event is gone, the tangible benefits of both sustainability and legacy show up to be extremely tenuous. Often the idea of legacy itself is left rusting around host cities and countries. In a 1999 “impact assessment and project appraisal”  of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, France, Jon Tiegland (1999) noted that 40% of hotels set up to meet the Games’ demand in the region went bankrupt in five years.

Beijing 2008 – the most expensive Olympics costing around $40 billion – created stadiums praised for the architectural adventurism but which are now struggling to keep themselves revenue-relevant. Two years later, South Africa spent $5.5 billion on staging the football World Cup and finds its new stadia, particularly in rural Polokwane and Nelspruit, far too large for towns whose own football teams do not play in the country’s top flight domestic league.

Debates of the sustainability of the several 2010 Commonwealth Games projects, for example (Hazards Centre 2010), were met with negative reports after the Games (The Hindu 2010). The Games’ top three officials spent close to 10 months in jail under corruption charges and rather than create a surge in Indian sport, India was suspended by the International Olympic Committee in December 2012 and remains so at the time of writing.

The Future in Brazil

In these many woeful examples lie echoes of what could well be Brazil’s future. The protests are merely an early response to what lies ahead. It is often forgotten that in 2007, Brazil ended up being the only bidder for 2014 World Cup after Colombia backed out. Brazil’s then sports minister Orlando Silva had promised that stadium construction and renovation would not cost the public. Seven years later, Brazilians will have to pay more than 90% of the estimated cost of £9 billion. With the recent history of mega events in mind, that was an almost predictable deceit.

Twelve stadiums are being either newly constructed or renovated for 2014. Brasilia, whose football team attracts no more than a few hundreds fans, will be given a 71,000-seater stadium. Cuiaba and Manaus, like Brasilia, do not have local clubs that feature in the top two tiers of the country’s domestic league, but will suddenly have stadiums that can fit in 40,000 ghost spectators. The stadium in Fortaleza, ranked fifth on a UN list of the world’s most unequal cities (UNHABITAT 2010), will cost more than $220 million to be renovated and more than 5,000 people have already been moved in connection with World Cup construction. A local resident told The Guardian that people were asking, “Who is the world cup for?” A political scientist called the tournament the “theatre of the authorities”.

In the developing world, the mega event has been turned by the organisers into the “bread and circus” metaphor that the Roman poet Juvenal rued over almost 2000 years ago. Except Brazil reminds us that these days, bread is not so much of a given any more. Speaking of mega events, a business professor had once said (Knowledge@Wharton 2010) “One must balance the questions of improving the daily livelihood of the common man with the so-called national prestige that only the pampered urban elite care about”. Only his name tells us the event he was referring to. It does not matter though, Rajesh Chakrabarti, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad could have been talking about Brazil 2014 and Rio 2016.


Barclay, Jonathan (2009): “Predicting the Costs and Benefits of Mega-Sporting Events: Misjudement of Olympic Proportions”, Economic Affairs, Vol 29, Issue 2, available at…, accessed on 6 July 2013.

Bellos, Alex (2003): Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (London: Bloomsbury Publishing).

Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (2007): Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights: Opportunities for the Olympic Movement and Others, Geneva, Switzerland, Fair_ Play _FINAL.pdf, accessed on 6 July 2013.

Knowledgem@Wharton (2010): “Economic Gains: Will the Commonwealth Games in Delhi Deliver What They Promised?”, 21 October, http://knowledge., accessed on 6 July 2013.

Georgakopoulos, George and Spyridoula Spanea (2011): “Rogge: Athens 2004 Weighed on Debt”, ekathimerini, 26 December, 4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite5_1_ 26/12/2011_419986, accessed on 6 July 2013.

Hazards Centre (2010): 2010 Commonwealth Games Delhi: How Much Does National Prestige Cost?, publications/pdf/sustainability_planning/ 2010_ commonwealth.pdf, accessed on 6 July 2013.

Leahy, Joe (2013): “Pelé Tells Brazilians to ‘Forget’ Protests Sweeping the Country”, Financial Times, London, 20 June, intl/cms/s/0/0b1106ee-d963-11e2-a6cf-00144feab7de.html#axzz2YKY7BYiO, accessed on 6 July.

Malkoutzis, Nick (2012): “How the 2004 Olympics Triggered Greece’s Decline”, Bloomberg Business Week, 13 August, http://www.businessweek. com/articles/2012-08-02/how-the-2004-olympics-triggered-greeces-decline, accessed on 6 July 2013.

National Audit Office, United Kingdom (2012): The London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games: Post-Games Review, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 794, Session 2012-13, 5 December, http://www. es.pdf, accessed on 6 July 2013.

Sobhana, K (2010): “Few Sponsors for Commonwealth, PSUs Told to Cough up Cash”, Indian Express, 14 July,…, accessed on 6 July 2013.

The Hindu (2010): “Question Mark over Cost of Commonwealth Games”, 16 October, 662290400.htm, accessed on 6 July 2013.

Tiegland, Jon (1999): “Mega Events and Impacts on Tourism; the Predictions and Realities of the Lillehammer Olympics”, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, Vol 17, No 4, December, pp 305-17. http://www.tandfonline. com/ doi/pdf/10.3152/147154699781767738, accessed on 6 July 2013.

UNHABITAT (2011): State of the World’s Cities: 2010-11, United Nations Human Settlement Programme, Nairobi, Kenya, http://www.unhabitat. org/documents/SOWC10/R8.pdf, accessed on 6 July 2013.

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