The high cost of sporting glory

Events such as the World Cup and the Olympics are not the economic juggernauts that their promoters

There is no doubt that the World Cup has been a joyous party for those lucky enough to attend. There is also no doubt that it has been a bon­anza for Fifa, football's governing body. The commercial income accruing to Fifa will come to about £2.2bn for TV rights, sponsorship and merchandising, while an estimated £800m has been spent on organising the tournament and £700m on local development projects.

Fifa, therefore, generates a tidy profit of £700m, which it either retains to promote its own pet projects or disburses to national football associations: a significant bargaining chip in the hands of its 24-man executive committee. In 2004, the projected cost to the South African taxpayer for hosting the finals was R2.3bn, or £200m (the bid book was lost for years until the Mail and Guardian posted it online in June); the current figure is said to be R33bn (£3bn). Fifa does not pay for the stadiums, but gets to put its brand all over development projects in the host country. And what does South Africa get in return for its investment?

The organisers claim that the event will produce an economic stimulus of R55bn (£4.8bn), generating in excess of 300,000 additional foreign tourists and promoting growth across the economy. Similar claims have been made for previous World Cups and other major sporting events, especially the summer Olympic Games. Politicians seem especially fond of claiming that major events bring significant economic benefits. This case rests on two foundations: first, that the building of stadiums and related infrastructure will boost the construction industry, with knock-on effects into the wider economy; second, that there will be a large influx of foreign visitors.

Eye candy

The problem with the first claim is that it is predicated on the assumption that the resources required for construction are lying around idle, waiting for something to do. In reality, modern infrastructure construction requires skilled labour and expensive resources. The question is not whether construction generates income; it is whether this particular form of construction puts resources to best use. It is not difficult to see that the needs of a developing country such as South Africa would be better met by building roads, houses and related infrastructure in the townships rather than building big stadiums. As with the Olympics, facilities for the World Cup are likely to be little used after the event. It's like building a bridge that is going to be used only once.

Take the development of Green Point in Cape Town at a cost of R4.5bn (£400m): the stadium will have hosted just eight games by the end of the tournament. It does offer spectacular views of Table Mountain, but remember just how much this eye candy cost. The original plan was to upgrade the existing stadium in Athlone, at an estimated cost about R1.7bn (£150m). The Athlone redevelopment was attractive because the facility is located in the poor Cape Flats and could have triggered public-sector spending in an underdeveloped area while providing a long-term facility for football fans.

Green Point, by contrast, is located in an affluent area and the mostly white sports fans there are already well provided for in the sports that interest them: rugby and cricket. The local authority had developed the Athlone plan with the South African government. It came into question when Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, visited the Cape, after an advance delegation realised what a superb TV image a stadium at Green Point would provide. A dubious case was made that Athlone would not provide enough seats, and the semi-final promise was dangled in front of the organising committee. The result: £400m for a few TV shots.

It is questionable whether developing stadiums is a good use of South African government revenue, but the absurdity of the Green Point white elephant seems beyond doubt. Similar questions were raised about the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, which cost R3.1bn (£270m). Local housing activists have bemoaned the waste of resources when so many ordinary people remain without basic facilities. The question of visitor numbers is similarly problematic. It sounds as if the event ought to bring a tourist bonanza, but the records from previous tournaments provide little evidence of any. Take Germany, for example. In June 2006, hotel bookings for overnight stays increased by 1.4 million compared to the previous June - which sounds impressive, until you realise that stays were significantly down on the previous year in May and August 2006, and that 2005 overall was a bad year. The entire 2006 overnight stay figure was only slightly higher than that recorded in 2001. Thus, the World Cup did little to boost German tourism that had stagnated after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

The decision to attend a World Cup hinges on complex factors. Many people who would have visited a location anyway choose to reschedule their trip to coincide with the event. Worse still, others will avoid visiting the country while the event is on. In 2003, there were 14 million visitors to Greece, but in 2004, when it hosted the Olympics, only 13 million. A better comparison with South Africa is the Japan-South Korea World Cup, which was some distance from the main sources of affluent, travelling fans. Japan had an increase in visitor arrivals in June 2002 of 37,646 over the previous year. South Korea suffered a decline of 56,864. South Africa expected a tourist uplift from Europe and the US; experience suggests disappointment.

In 2004, when South Africa was awarded the World Cup, there was talk of visitor numbers as high as 600,000 from people connected to the bid. By last year, Grant Thornton, as consultant to the organising committee, was still anticipating 483,000 visitors, but down­graded its forecast to 373,000 in the spring. Even this number sounds optimistic; hotels in Durban, Cape Town and elsewhere have been reporting occupancy rates in the region of 10-30 per cent, rather than the expected 65-75 per cent. Journalists have been talking about how quiet it is outside the stadiums. Demand for tickets within South Africa and from the rest of Africa has been particularly disappointing and some of the group matches were played in half-full stadiums, as if to emphasise what a waste of money much of the investment has been.

To put it in perspective, visitor numbers from outside Africa totalled 331,000 in June and July last year, while visitors from other African nations exceeded 1.2 million. So it looks as if numbers of tourists to South Africa will be little different from previous years. This is a financial nightmare for South African commerce, including large numbers of small businesses that invested in facilities to meet a much higher level of demand.Yet none of this should come as much of a surprise: if the South Africans had asked for an objective view backed up by data five years ago, they could easily have got it.

So, why are such inflated and misleading claims presented by governments and organisers? The answer is that Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are monopolists selling the rights to the most attractive sports events on the planet and, like any good monopolist, they are not prepared to give their property away cheaply. That is why they organise bidding contests among potential host nations. Setting political rhetoric aside, what wins you the bid is the promise to lay on lavish games to the greater glory of Fifa and the IOC, largely at the public expense. These events could be self-funding, but then they would not be so lavish. Fifa and the IOC demand a government guarantee to underwrite the staggering cost. To justify this extravagance, politicians cover themselves by claiming that there is an economic benefit - a quite breathtaking refusal to face the facts.

Voodoo economics

In many cases, one might say that this does not really matter. There is good evidence that the public at large derives a significant feel-good factor from hosting major events and so is quite willing to subsidise them. Wealthy nations such as Germany and the UK can afford (more or less) to cover the cost if that is what people want. And, in the light of the banking bailouts, the subsidies no longer look so huge. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the public is not fooled by the organisers' voodoo economics. When it was announced in 2007 that the cost of the 2012 Olympic Games in London would be closer to £9bn than the original estimate of £2.4bn, few batted an eyelid.

But with South Africa, the issue is more serious. The UK government spends about £80bn annually on education, whereas South Africa spends about £12bn. The UK is spending a sum equal to just over 10 per cent of its annual education budget on London 2012, South Africa about 25 per cent to host the 2010 World Cup. Scarce resources are being diverted from activities that have much greater value added.

This is just not good enough. Historically, most major sports events have been awarded to wealthy nations that can afford to pay for them. Awarding the World Cup to a developing nation is an important step forward, but this achievement should not be bought by using essential resources to provide VIPs with freebies. There is no doubt that these events could be less lavish and remain equally entertaining. Most of us watch the World Cup on TV - we will be watching what is happening on the grass, and not from the blimp, or even the terraces.

There are many ways in which a more equitable World Cup could be organised, but most reforms require a more open and democratised governance at the top. Both Fifa and the IOC could choose to award their prestigious prizes not on the basis of extravagant public spending, but on sporting merit. For example, the nation that did the most to promote participation in sport could be awarded the right to host these events. Nor need they discriminate against the poor, as the key measure would be growth, not the base level at which countries start. However, such reforms require a commitment to pursuing purely sporting objectives, rather than the current system of rampant commercialism for the good of organisations such as Fifa. Football is meant to be the beautiful game, not the bankrupt game.

Stefan Szymanski is professor of economics at Cass Business School and co-author of “Why England Lose" (HarperSport, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood