The Sochi Winter Olympics, which start in less than a month, could be more important in the history of big sporting events even than in the wildest dreams of its presidential patron, Vladimir Putin.
It is already the most expensive ever Games, coming in a smidge over $50bn (£30bn), and, is proving one of the most logistically and politically controversial, but it could take its place in the annals of sports fixtures as the beginning of the end of the mega-event.
Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the guardian of the Olympic spirit, and Fifa, the world governing body of football, are about to embark on a prolonged period of instability, with their flagship events lined up in a frightening domino effect of uncertainty.
One after the other over the best part of the next decade, crowned of course by the mother of all unknowns with a World Cup in the desert, the road to the biggest sports events is littered with potholes.
The spiralling costs of infrastructure in the Black Sea resort of Sochi find an echo around the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where a country that practises football as a religion is struggling to deliver a World Cup – what should be its daily bread – even before it contemplates how on earth it will manage barely two years later to stage the first Olympics in the history of South America.
Then it is back to Russia for a World Cup stretched across three time zones in cities where persistent racism inside football stadiums may prompt a boycott from some black players. Not exactly a walk in the park either.
And, finally, the Fifa bandwagon rolls on to the Gulf where, following an indiscreet remark by secretary-general Jérôme Valcke this week, we now know the world’s worst kept secret that Qatar 2022 (or 2021 perhaps) will take place in the northern hemisphere’s winter to avoid the searing 50 degree heat of June/July.
I have no sympathy for Fifa or the IOC. The sleepless nights will be of their own making – the consequence of a limitless thirst for commercial revenue, geopolitical influence, individual aggrandisement and the misplaced sense that sport must somehow mirror the rising ambitions of mineral-rich nation states. In short, the chickens are coming home to roost.
But where will it all stop? After the first World Cup in the desert, the first Olympics on Mars? I’m not sure that was what Professor Stephen Hawking had in mind when he proposed that the universe was infinite. Sport does have its boundaries and, with the ever-burgeoning cost, scale and ambition of the World Cup and the Olympics, it is fast losing sight of them.
I have drawn parallels with the music industry before, and with good reason, but I cannot help feeling the financial travails of the festival scene could provide a salutary warning for sport. Even while he continues to sell out in just hours, Michael Eavis, the founder of Glastonbury, says the legendary music festival has only a few more years left in it. People feel they have seen it all before, he says, while they have less money in their pockets for frivolity. He senses a danger he could kill his golden goose.
The World Cup and the Olympics must similarly produce attention-grabbing headline acts if they are to keep bringing people through the turnstiles. The IOC has less to worry about on that front than Fifa. The Olympics continues to create magical moments incorporating the highest quality sport in any given discipline. The World Cup no longer does that.
Just as Glastonbury’s profits are being chipped away by rivals producing a more hippie vibe, big sports events face competition at the grassroots. Whether it is the sense of community at mass participation festivals, such as those organised by Street Games, or the raw, honest sweat of Professional Bull Riding (according to Forbes magazine the fastest-growing sport commercially in the US), there are alternatives for sports fans jaded by the hard corporate sell.
There is an evolution to these things. Even the Big Chill, which started as the antithesis to festivals with title sponsors, was axed as alternatives with a less corporate ambience sprouted in its spiritual place.
Maybe the appetite for sporting razzmatazz is never-ending; maybe consumers will tolerate further price inflation associated with travelling to ever more outlandish places. But I don’t believe sport is subject to the no-boundary proposal.
There will be a tipping point at which we must witness the death of the mega-event (I think there is a band name in there somewhere). Before we reach that moment, those in charge need to recalibrate and rationalise to stay in touch with reality before world sport eats itself.
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