Home Politics Community Politics World Cup and Olympics: Beautiful Games, Ugly Scars

World Cup and Olympics: Beautiful Games, Ugly Scars

Photo by Paulisson Miura, Creative Commons License
Photo by Paulisson Miura, Creative Commons License

The World Cup, the world’s most popular global sporting event, begins on June 12. While the games will be intriguing and the spectacle visually enticing, it is important to remember the cost of similar events.

Soccer — and that’s the last time you’ll see that word, because the game is almost universally recognized as “football” — is the most popular game in the world. This is for a variety of reasons. One is pure aesthetics. It is described as the “beautiful game” for a reason. Many sports require an emotional investment to enjoy, some kind of attachment to one of the participants. Baseball comes quickly to mind. (My editor just spilled a beverage.) Not so for football. One can watch any two sides play just for a few moments and the fluidity and tension will draw in the spectator.

Photo by Craig Tuten

Another reason for football’s popularity is its appeal across the full socioeconomic spectrum. It is accessible for the poor because it requires almost no equipment. Pele, the greatest player in history, recently told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that he played football barefoot, occasionally with a grapefruit instead of a ball, when he was a kid. For poor kids, the love of football — and sports in general — can be aspirational, as James Michener described in his 1976 non-fiction book Sports in America. Durell Eskridge, a safety on Syracuse University’s (American) football team who grew up in Miami’s Pork ‘N’ Beans housing project, described it to Al Jazeera this way: “There’s only three routes to go. You’re going to play sports, you’re going to be dead, or you’re going to jail.”

For the working class, football is a fantastic spectator sport available at a reasonable price. And because football appeals to the poor and working classes, the rich know it can make them a lot of money. Banks not only sponsor football teams, they sponsor whole leagues. The English Premier League, recently proven the second-best in the world, is sponsored by Barclays. The league that dethroned them, Spain’s La Liga, is sponsored by BBVA. While financial firms have had to pull back from club sponsorships for publicity reasons following the global recession, serious money from oil-rich Middle East countries has poured in to replace them via state owned airlines, like Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates. These companies sponsor the most successful, and therefore the most lucrative, clubs. Even Disney saw the game’s value in 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Because football appeals to this broad spectrum, it is a powerful game, on and off the pitch. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), world governing body of football, holds the Confederations Cup tournament the year prior to every World Cup to test the host country’s preparation. In 2013, unlikely qualifier Tahiti, a team composed of teachers and unemployed fishermen, had to play the best teams on the planet. Tahiti fought admirably, attacking the likes of world champion Spain, even scoring its first goal in top competition, earning the love and admiration of Brazilians in the process.

Closer to home, the Portland Timbers teamed up with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 2013 to help Atticus Lane-Dupre. Atticus, 8 years old, had been treated for cancer. His wish was for his team, the Green Machine, to play the Portland Timbers. Thousands of Timbers Army fans came out to cheer on Atticus and the Green Machine. Do yourself a favor. Click this link.

Photo by Craig Tuten

The number of heart attacks in France decreased following France’s World Cup victory on home soil in 1998. And there was that time when football stopped a war. In 2005, Cote D’Ivoire was in its fifth year of civil war. Immediately after qualifying for the World Cup in Germany, Didier Drogba got on his knees and begged the country to make peace. It happened within a week. Drogba then orchestrated a game played in territory occupied by rebels.

Football has the ability to uplift, but the silly money that swirls around the game can corrupt. When the whole world comes together for the World Cup, the effect is compounded. FIFA has made a point to bring the World Cup and its perceived economic benefits to the Global South, a generic term meaning most of the nations of South America, Africa, and Asia. This began with the 2010 Cup in South Africa.

South Africa spent over $4 billion to host the Cup. Unfortunately, that money did not touch the majority of South Africans. The construction jobs that were generated were only temporary and did nothing to alleviate 40 percent unemployment rates and widespread poverty. Despite its history of apartheid, Cape Town rounded up thousands of the homeless and working poor and moved them to the “temporary relocation area” of Tin Can Town, away from tourist eyes. Then FIFA would not let South Africans generate their own income from the Cup, establishing “exclusion zones” around stadia where only FIFA-approved businesses could trade. Most South Africans couldn’t even enjoy the games as spectators because tickets were too expensive and required a credit card to purchase.

FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar stunned the human rights community. According to Amnesty International, 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce are from elsewhere, primarily South Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Foreign workers in Qatar are subject to the kafala system wherein a worker is bound to an employer. A worker may not change jobs without his sponsor employer’s consent, which is rarely given. In many documented cases, employers have withheld at least a portion of workers’ wages. 90 percent of workers have their passports held by their employers, who must issue workers an exit visa for them to leave Qatar at all. It is documented modern day slavery.

Conditions on the job are no better in Qatar. Again according to Amnesty, over 1,000 construction workers were admitted to the hospital in Doha for falls in 2013. Since the World Cup was awarded in December 2010, over 700 Indian workers have died. Nearly 400 Nepalese workers died in Qatar over a recent two-year span. Many of these workers are reportedly dying from heart failure, probably a reflection of malnutrition, overexertion, and an inability to escape the heat — day or night. On May 13, during the initial airing of ESPN’s E:60 report, “Qatar’s World Cup,” Jeremy Schaap asked International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow, “How many people have to die for this World Cup to take place?”

Burrow replied that conservatively, over 4,000 Indian and Nepalese workers would die in Qatar by 2022.

The negative international attention has been embarrassing for both Qatar and FIFA. FIFA has put pressure on Qatar to demonstrate improvement. In a January press release, FIFA stated,

The application of international norms of behaviour is a FIFA principle and part of all of FIFA’s activities, and is expected from all hosts of its events. FIFA firmly believes in the power that the FIFA World Cup™ can have in triggering positive social change in Qatar, including improving the labour rights and conditions of migrant workers.

The day after ESPN’s report aired, Qatar announced abolition of the kafala system and improvements to the exit visa program for foreign workers, pending approval by the Qatari advisory council. According to The Guardian, Rima Kalush of Migrant-Rights.org considered it

an announcement of an announcement. My worry is that Qatar will follow Bahrain’s footsteps in renaming the sponsorship system without actually abolishing the majority of the exploitative laws and practices that encompass the system.

The ultimate sword of Damocles — revocation of Qatar’s bid award — is apparently off the table. In November, FIFA president Sep Blatter said that he wanted to

reiterate the decision taken by the Executive Committee in October that there is not one single doubt that the World Cup 2022 will be organised in Qatar, with all matches to be played in Qatar. The decision has been taken on the 2 December 2010 and will not be reversed.

Unfortunately, Brazil is not the exception to recent World Cup difficulties. The country is spending $11.5 billion on the Cup while health care and education languish. There is a widespread opinion, supported by strong evidence, that the World Cup is simply a vehicle to move public monies into the hands of private construction firms. A feeling of betrayal drove a million Brazilians into the streets during the Confederations Cup last year. Threatening, from the government’s perspective, was that the working class joined citizens from the favelas, Rio de Janeiro’s slums, in protest.

There is a serious plan to crack down on protest in Rio in June, where Rudi Giuliani has been hired as a security consultant. Brazil does not want a repeat of the Confederations Cup. As ESPN’s Wright Thompson writes, “If you are planning to protest during the World Cup – you know, be socially conscious while getting some sun and some soccer – get ready for tear gas and rubber bullets from the riot cops.”

In an effort to hide Brazil’s discontent, approved protest zones are at least two kilometers from all stadia.

The commonality shared by Brazil and other host nations of global sporting events is the plague of infrastructure. Brazil is wildly behind schedule in construction for both the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Playing catch-up has led to shoddy work and the deaths of eight workers. Brazilians will benefit little from the results. One stadium is being built in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, where it is destined to be underused. The Associated Press quoted a Brasilia security guard describing Brasilia’s new stadium: “That’s a monument to national sadness and waste… When politicians build a road, even if there are kickbacks, at least at the end we have a road. With this stadium, we have nothing.”

Photo by Craig Tuten

Similarly, those other quadrennial events, the Olympic Games, are notorious for underused or abandoned infrastructure. The most recent Olympics held in Sochi this year cost $51 billion and displaced thousands of people. Post-Games uses for the huge arenas built there have not been determined. Many of Beijing’s venues, including Bird’s Nest, which drew so much awe during the 2008 Summer Games, have been completely abandoned. Those Games cost 1.5 million people their homes.

Photographers Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit have been traveling to former Olympic host cities to document the condition of former venues as part of their Olympic City project. In an interview with Salon, Hustwit described the problem of Olympic infrastructure:

If there is not demand for [a venue] before the Olympics, there’s probably not going to be demand for it afterwards. So unless it’s a government like China or Russia that can just pump money into these places to keep them going, when there isn’t really a need for them you end up with something like Athens, where there are 20 of these beautiful, amazing venues that were built that just have chain-link fences around them and are covered in graffiti and haven’t been used in 10 years.

Anchorage would be wise to heed those cautionary words. There has been a lot of chatter recently about hosting a Winter Games

in the 49th state. Mayor Dan Sullivan formed an exploratory committee in June of 2013 to consider a bid. That committee will make a recommendation late this year. An active Facebook page, “Anchorage, Alaska for the 2026 Winter Olympics,” has over 5,500 likes. Anchorage has pursued bids for the Games several times previously. Former mayor Rick Mystrom, speaking to the Alaska Journal of Commerce, said of the new infrastructure that would be necessary to host, “We could be a speed skating center for the world. We could be a ski jump center. We can do all those things.”

Photo by Craig Tuten

Mystrom’s remarks evoke whispers from an Iowa cornfield: “If you build it, they will come…” Alaskans know that we have world class terrain, an ideal climate, and a world class ski resort in Alyeska for the Winter Games. What Anchorage does not have are facilities for things like speed skating, luge, and ski jumping. The Sullivan Arena would need a significant overhaul, including additional seating, to be able to host events. Any added seats would go unoccupied post-Games according to recent seating averages. Mystrom acknowledged that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prefers new facilities to refurbished existing ones, yet Sullivan plans to use no public funding.

Sullivan’s goal of hosting an Olympic Games with no public money is a pipe dream at best. More likely, it is completely disingenuous. As part of his plan to lure the Olympics to Anchorage, he is touting a radical alteration of the Ship Creek area downtown. At some point, the citizens will have to pony up for these megaprojects, which would be a lot more palatable if Sullivan believed we could also pay teachers, build police academies, and maintain libraries. If Sullivan’s vision were realized, much like Brazil, a lot of public money would find its way into a few private hands.

When governments that consistently claim money is unavailable for basic human services suddenly discover billions of dollars for sports infrastructure, citizens cry foul. And it should be no different in Alaska. Unfortunately, in Brazil, the damage has been done.

My personal tenuous connection to football formed in the summer of 2002. I was in Vietnam participating in a study abroad program. Fortuitously, the World Cup was happening concurrently in Japan and South Korea. Since everyone was watching it, my first rudimentary phrases in Vietnamese were about football. At first, we joked with each other about the lack of quality in our respective teams. Then, as the U.S. advanced deeper into the tournament, the Vietnamese people I met expressed support and respect.

My experience convinced me that football, and sport in general, can be a unifier. I want that to continue. During World Cup 2014, there will be stories and moments that inspire. The people of Brazil will put on a colorful showcase of the beautiful game. But as we enjoy, it is important to remember how much they have sacrificed for the show. We, as Alaskans, need to think long and hard before we make a similar sacrifice.

Love the game. Question the event.