Watching the latest chapter of the FIFA scandal unfold, it's been hard not to get sucked in by the personalities involved. Be it Sepp Blatter and his astoundingly boring vanity film, Jack Warner and his remarkable ability to swallow an Onion whole, or Chuck Blazer, he of the cat apartment and the "fleet" of mobility scooters, we've been offered up a rogue's gallery of the comical and the ridiculous. Which is great: fraud can, after all, be frightfully dull.
But as much as what is alleged to have been perpetrated or enabled by these strange, compelling men, what is alleged to have happened has also emerged from a wider context. FIFA, as an organisation, is built around the World Cup; it depends on the tournament not just for money but for status, and for power. Where there is competition to host the tournament, FIFA's power waxes; if they threw a World Cup and nobody wanted to host it, FIFA would be in serious trouble.
These are difficult times for sporting mega-events. More than ever before, the financial and social costs of hosting the World Cup — or the planet's other mega-event, the Olympics — are being exposed and found wanting. Brazil 2014 passed in a giddy rush of generally decent football, but it also, along with the forthcoming 2016 Olympics, brought to light:
incomplete transport infrastructure; half-finished building projects; abandoned monorails; a collapsed motorway overpass; white elephant stadiums built with public money then being passed into private ownership; an explosion in political contributions from companies involved in the World Cup; the eviction and forced relocation of around 250,000 favela residents; a sharp spike in gentrification; a drop in GDP; a rise in inflation; a hike in bus fares; the mistreatment of migrant workers; the deaths of construction workers; and, eventually and inevitably, protests, strikes and polls showing that a mere third of the country felt that the World Cup would have a "positive impact".
All of which is detailed in just a few pages of Circus Maximus by Andrew Zimbalist, a slim yet persuasive book that seeks to set out the "economic gamble behind hosting the Olympics and the World Cup." And it succeeds; indeed, it succeeds to such an extent that the reader can't help but wonder why on earth any vaguely sensible city or country would want to play any part in such an expensive business.
You know the official reasons, of course. A mega-event brings, so the story goes, a bump in employment, a spike in tourism and the chance for a city or country to promote itself to the world as a destination for business and pleasure. Then, once the closing ceremony is over and the medals have been handed out, there is the legacy, the ripples that spread out from the occasion and lift an entire nation into a healthier and happier state of being, free to enjoy the fruits of the vast investments in infrastructure and urban regeneration.
Zimbalist, carefully and precisely, unpicks each and every one of these claims as they relate to the modern super-event. The problems with white elephant stadia are well-documented; less well-known is that tourism often falls during competitions themselves, as non-sporting tourists stay the hell out of the way. Infrastructure improvements go uncompleted — the extra runway planned for Rio de Janeiro's Galeão International Airport was supposed to open in time for the World Cup; it may not be completed in time for the Olympics — or are finished at many more times their budget, sucking money away from other less-glamorous projects. And the optimism that underpins most legacy planning emerges as at best panglossian (and at worst desperately cynical): he notes that a year on from London 2012, country-wide participation had fallen in 20 of 29 sports.
Which isn't to say that nobody's making anything at all. We know that FIFA and IOC officials are well taken care of, and we know that politicians generally enjoy the cachet of overseeing such festivities, safe in the knowledge that they'll be long gone once the bills start to bite. Zimbalist points out that the bids themselves tend to be driven by "major private economic interests ... construction companies, [...] insurance companies, architectural firms, hotels, local media companies, investment bankers [and] the lawyers who work for these groups." Which is to say, those that stand to benefit from the simple fact of the games taking place, regardless of the wider questions of legacy or the wisdom of expenditure.
The timeliness of this book comes not just from the fact that FIFA is in the process of hurling its dirty laundry into the face of the public, or that the Brazilian public managed to entirely undermine the PR drive behind their World Cup, or that Qatar's kafala employment system is coming under increasing scrutiny (and, as Zimbalist notes, they are far from the first World Cup host to rely on underpaid migrant labour to get their buildings built). It comes from the fact that the irrationality of the financial gamble involved — the spiralling of projected costs, the swelling of projected debt — is starting to work against the mega-events themselves.
The number of cities interested in hosting both the Summer and Winter Olympics is steadily declining, Olympiad on Olympiad, and it's worth remembering that the bidding process for the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 were only opened up to most of the world after the continental rotation system, introduced to ensure an African nation won the rights in 2010, resulted in just one South American nation applying to host the competition. The process for deciding the 2026 hosts has recently been postponed. And at a slightly smaller scale, the generally disappointing slate of bids to host the 2020 European Championships resulted in UEFA deciding to smear the competition across the continent.
Where does this process end? Zimbalist isn't hopeful that things will change too much, even given this trend:
monopolists [such as FIFA and the IOC] won't surrender power voluntarily and will be inclined towards minimalist cosmetic reforms [while] city and country politicians will be concerned with not alienating their donors and the most powerful elements in their constituencies. They will be inclined, absent political reform, to shill for the interests of the construction, insurance, financial and hotel industries.
Mega-events are predicated, above all else, on the idea that they are inspirational: that they capture the imaginations and attention of the entire planet. From that comes their legitimacy, and from that comes everything else as well; that attention is what broadcasters and sponsors pay for. And yet, the tide is turning. The mayor of Paris has cited public pressure as a reason why the city may not bid for another summer games. Protesters have marched against the building of the stadium that will form the centrepiece of Tokyo's 2020. And Norway's capital Oslo recently withdrew from the process to host the 2022 Winter Olympics after a collapse in public support and what one newspaper described as the "insane demands that [the IOC] should be treated like the king of Saudi Arabia."
So this book isn't just good, though it is clearly written, cogently argued, authoritative without ever descending into academic impenetrability. Nor is it just of historical and analytical interest, though it is that, too. It's a vital record of the times we live in now. It's a drawing back of the curtain, and it's a long overdue paying of attention to not just the men but the systems that clank along behind the glitz and the goals and the gold medals.