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The white elephant - What mega sporting events leave behind


The white elephant - What mega sporting events leave behind

Mega sporting events are often presented as a way to boost economic growth and enthusiasm among locals, but evidence shows that in the wake of these events, cities are plagued with high costs and decaying sporting infrastructure. What can be done to avoid the burden of expensive, often unnecessary facilities?

Pageantry and promises of social and economic boosts have long been a selling point for mega sporting events. However, investments made in new infrastructure required to host such events can cause long-term stress on local economies and the environment, not to mention the human cost of relocation and potential death of workers associated with some tournaments. As explained by sport economist Andrew Zimbalist, mega sporting events require short-term, exceptionally large investments in infrastructure, often resulting in costly stadiums that become ‘white elephants’ - structures that not only put a financial strain on cities but may become useless after the event.

One of the few mega sporting events to make a profit was the Olympic Games of 1984 in Los Angeles, but this was mainly due to the decision to use existing sport facilities. Since then cities have built new purpose stadiums or lavishly renovated existing ones only to have them fall into disrepair. While cities try their best to encourage the use of these white elephants for football matches and concerts profits fall short as exemplified by Estadio Nacional in Brazil's capital Brasilia. Renovations cost $900 million but revenue hovers around $500,000 annually. Some stadiums are abandoned altogether.

Converting white elephants

Avoiding white elephants seems unlikely in the immediate future, especially as developing economies continue to view mega sporting events as a mechanism for growth. Countries and international sport associations must work together with local organisations to plan beyond the event and avoid the white elephant phenomenon either by repurposing stadiums or by a reconceptualisation of these events altogether.

Local groups in South Africa have recommended that Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium be converted into affordable housing for the poor, and there was even talk of a Brazilian stadium becoming a detention centre. While these ideas are creative, they are met with skepticism because of conversion costs, zoning issues and perceptions that these spaces can only serve as entertainment venues. It is vital that countries plan for both the short and long term before submitting their bids to host.

Or maybe it is time to rethink the structure of these events as done by UEFA. The association announced that Euro 2020 will be hosted by 13 cities across Europe to reduce its socio-economic and environmental impact. This opens up interesting possibilities for host cities to not only use their existing infrastructure, but to attract tourists and investors on a smaller scale. This could lead not only to the end of white elephants, but could generate the profits long promised by organising committees.


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Leena Woodhouse-Ledermann


Tuesday, July 7, 2015 - 23:00