Getting ready to welcome millions of visitors – as Russia is now doing in Moscow, Sochi and other cities in advance of the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament – takes years of planning and lots of construction. It’s also expensive: Building 12 stadiums in 11 cities cost Russia an estimated US$11 billion.
When these big events are underway, they always seem worth the money and the trouble. Having worked at three World Expos, attended the Olympics twice and gone to a Tour de France and an Australian Open, I have personally experienced the palpable excitement they offer. But I have also done enough research to see that international extravaganzas don’t always benefit the locals in the long run.
Here’s what we’ve learned.
An overarching challenge we always see is that the organizations running big events and the public have different priorities. One side mainly cares about boosting its brand through the one-time spectacle’s success. The other wants to raise its profile and acquire new buildings, roads and other infrastructure that will improve the local quality of life in the long run – without breaking the bank.
In my view, both FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, and the International Olympic Committee, which organizes the Winter and Summer Games, need to reconsider their business models and start doing more to meet the needs of host cities. Metropolitan areas that successfully host these big events make them a means to an end: becoming better places to live.
Sometimes building what it takes to host a World Cup or other big events dovetails with a city’s ambitions. More often, the extensive preparations distort local priorities. Since the World Cup soccer tournament requires world-class stadiums that some host countries lack when they win the honor of hosting it, a construction frenzy ensues when a metropolitan area has the honor of hosting one.
Likewise, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro looked great on TV, but left behind many venues that quickly became a shambles following a process riddled with corruption that displaced thousands of people.