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Crisis and trembling

23 February 2012

Weighed down by their debts, countries in the west are struggling to remain in the lead when it comes to organising global sporting events. Emerging countries could benefit.

Times are dark for the countries bidding for the Olympics. Mario Monti, the Italian Prime Minister, announced on Tuesday 14 February that Rome was withdrawing from the race for the 2020 Summer Games. The reason? The country’s economic difficulties. “It would be irresponsible, given the current situation in Italy, to pursue the matter further”, suggested one political leader. So now there are only five looking for a win: Madrid, Tokyo, Istanbul, Tokyo and Baku. But rumours of a withdrawal have been circulating in the streets of Madrid for a number of weeks now and for the same reasons as in Italy, because the American ratings agency, Moody’s, has downgraded Spain by two notches.

So who is benefitting from the crisis? In the race for the 2020 Games, the five “survivors”. In Qatar, they are not about to allow a financial crisis to stop a bid for a global sporting event. Just like the crisis will not be allowed to endanger the preparations to host an event that has already been awarded. Baku, the capital of an Azerbaijan determined to become one of the ‘nouveaux riches’ of the sports business, could also benefit from the situation. For the others it’s not so sure.

Deep cuts in British sports

David Douillet, French Minister for Sports, half alluded to it in January when visiting the Olympic site in London accompanied by Laura Flessel and Christophe Lemaitre: Europe perhaps no longer has the wherewithal to stay at the top of the class on the world map of sports, letting slip, “If we had been chosen instead of London to host the 2012 Games, I’m not sure that we would have had the financial resources to do a proper job of hosting the event”.

Even the British have taken an axe to certain Olympic budget items. Steve Redgrave, the English rowing legend, confided, “The economic crisis has greatly reduced the budget that we had initially planned to enable the different sports to prepare the Games. Subsidies have been focused on the disciplines likely to produce the greatest numbers of medals, such as rowing, cycling and athletics. We have above all favoured the richer sports”. Tough luck for the “smaller” sports, which were nevertheless convinced that they would get maximum benefit from the ‘Olympic effect’ to put on some muscle and a couple of inches. Table tennis, for example, had been promised an aid package of around € 2.7 million. In 2009, this sum was divided in half.

In Africa, spend more to win more

Difficult to imagine ten years ago, this continental drift should reshuffle the cards in favour of emerging countries. India is quietly waiting for an opportunity to make a bid to host the Olympic Games. Africa is knocking at the door. Just like Gabon, the host, alongside Equatorial Guinea, of the last Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football tournament. The country spent lavishly – not far from $ 500 million – to show that it was up to hosting the event. In the end its leaders all agree that it was the “biggest winner of the competition”. An admission from Henri Ohayon, Director of the National Agency for Major Works in Gabon, “A sporting event of the size and impact of the CAN, for a country like ours, can change many things. Our image abroad, our infrastructures and even the people’s perception of their own future”. Europe would struggle to make the same claim.

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