IN MY VIEW: Is it time to designate permanent homes for the Olympics and FIFA World Cup?
First Published on insidethegames.biz
I was not altogether surprised on Friday to open my copy of The Guardian newspaper and find that the latest twists in the Qatar World Cup saga had combined with the approach of Sochi 2014 to provoke columnist Simon Jenkins into an elegant tirade.
These mega-events, Jenkins argued, "are about the crudest form of politics, that of national prestige.
"The athletico-military-industrial complex seems to have a mesmeric appeal to world leaders, an appeal expertly exploited by bodies like the [International Olympic Committee] and FIFA."
His proposed remedy for the undeniable extravagance of 21st-century Olympic/World Cup bidding battles and the events themselves?
"Hold these events each year in the same place."
This is very interesting, since this, of course, might easily have happened: the second Modern Olympics was ultimately held in Paris in 1900 after Baron Pierre de Coubertin rejected calls for the Games to be sited permanently in Greece.
Would this really have been a better idea?
It is hard to imagine the cradle of the Ancient Games could have coped with laying on a circus of the scale of the modern Olympics and Paralympics every four years, even without the bother, faced by contemporary host-cities, of building up infrastructure, sometimes from scratch.
Jenkins himself writes that the "bankrupting of Athens [which again hosted the Games in 2004]...shows the horrific cost of these events to less than wealthy cities".
If not Greece, then could some other place have been transformed into a suitable permanent site?
Well, possibly, but as we know, human affairs are all too changeable; what might have appeared the right place in 1900 would almost certainly seem less than ideal a couple of decades later.
Say Coubertin and colleagues had identified Tsarist Moscow as the place in 1900, where would that have left them come 1917?
Of the Olympic sites I know, I would say that Berlin, with its functional infrastructure, oodles of space and quasi-indestructible Olympic Stadium would have had most going for it as a potential permanent home for the Games.
But for years such a notion would have been politically completely untenable.
How, in any case, would we choose sites to be the permanent home of the Olympics and World Cup from 2025 or so?
Presumably via bidding processes.
Critics of the current modus operandi would at least know that these would be the last bid battles for a long time, perhaps ever.
But, given the astonishing prize at stake, imagine how extravagant, ostentatious and ruthless these contests would be.
They would make what has gone before look like so many "Best-kept village" competitions.
There is another purely sporting problem associated with staging mega-events - in particular the World Cup - in the same place every four years: home advantage.
As we all know, playing at home constitutes a big advantage in team sports such as football.
It therefore follows that the team from whichever country was chosen as the permanent World Cup host would consistently outperform its international ranking.
Base the competition in one of the nations that have enjoyed the most success over the years - in Brazil, say, or Germany or Italy - and you may be certain that that host-country would lift the trophy far more often than any rival.
UEFA boss Michel Platini's idea for Euro 2020 of staging the tournament in a variety of locations around the European continent offers an alternative model that could be said to promise the best of both worlds, since it incorporates an element of bidding while obviating the need for numerous new stadia that might become white elephants.
It is an ingenious blueprint for difficult times that warrants careful study, in my view, by administrators in other regions, notably Africa.
I strongly suspect though that it will dilute the excitement that still comes, even in an age when the vast majority of people witness the action on TV, from siting a tournament in one or two countries.
I also wonder about the administrative and logistical consequences of taking in so many national territories and legal systems.
My chief objection though to designating permanent homes for the world's main sporting mega-events is that it would amount to a cop-out.
Yes, there is all too much scope for corruption and incompetence to impair the present processes whereby the arenas for these great sporting dramas are selected and erected.
But when decision-makers are correctly motivated, and projects well-managed and thought-through so as to maximise common ground between the short-term needs of the competition and the long-term needs of the host territory, sporting mega-events can be powerful tools for reshaping and modernising urban environments to the benefit of millions.
No, in an ideal world you should not need anything as frivolous as a sports competition to ensure that a much-needed urban transit system is built or an airport is upgraded.
And sports bodies do need to take more responsibility for vetoing proposals that risk channelling funds away from overstretched basic public services to vanity projects such as over-ornate sports arenas.
But when it comes to heading off the U-turns and prevarications that can all too easily bedevil even the worthiest long-term public works projects, an unmissable Olympic/World Cup deadline, reinforced by the intensity of the global media spotlight that comes with it, puts an exceptionally potent weapon in the hands of city planners.
Yes, the time-honoured system for strewing these great sporting festivals around the planet may at times seem messy, even indefensible.
For all its perils though, I tend to view the event bidding process in much the same way as Winston Churchill saw the West's preferred system of Government.
You know: "Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
By David Owen, former Sports Editor of the Financial Times.
Date published: 15 January 2014