Last Friday the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro was selected to host the Olympic Games in 2016. Brazilians celebrated as only they can – they flowed into the streets in a riot of colour and music. It was a familiar sight. The reason too was familiar. In just a decade, Brazil is going to host three major world events – Pan-American games in 2007, football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. It’s a rich harvest.
Brazil is, of course, well known for its football, beach volleyball and other sports. It is, in fact, the face and soul of world football.
Pele, Ronaldinho, Kaka and a host of other football stars are more recognisable than Lula da Silva, the country’s president. But this has not been enough to persuade leaders of major world sports to allow Brazil host their event. Well, until now.
Brazil is also famous for other unique and spectacular cultural events. There is the world famous and uniquely Latin American street carnival.
The whole country turns up in eye-catching colourful costumes and parade and dance through the streets to the rhythm of drums, samba and salsa tunes. Long-legged, scantily dressed beautiful women in extravagant make-up give the carnival a very earthy atmosphere.
This uninhibited celebratory and exhibitionist national streak has also not been enough, until now, to pull a major cultural event to Brazil.
Why is it then that with such a fun-loving population and an unequalled sporting tradition the country has not been able to host a major world sport?
The answer is simple. It is power. For as long as Brazil was perceived not to have the muscle to wrestle with the big guys, major world sports stayed away.
This in spite of the fact that it continued to export its sporting talent, which it had in prodigious quantities, to Europe, North America and other wealthy countries.
Yes, it could scoop all trophies on offer. And yes, its sports stars would continue to become icons in every country. Still that was not enough for it to stage a major showpiece event.
That has now changed. Brazil is an economic power that can no longer be ignored. It is a member of the G20, the expanded group of the world’s strongest economies that determine the world economic order.
It has become the most influential player in Latin American affairs. Where the big brother to the north (the United States of America) used to act unilaterally in the region, it cannot do so now without at the very least seeking the understanding of Brazil.
Interestingly, Brazil does not flaunt its new-found economic power. It exercises it in a quiet, almost reluctant manner. That certainly seems to be the style of President Da Silva.
It is in sharp contrast to the noise, bluster and sabre rattling of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez who wants to be recognised as a major player in the region mainly because of what he perceives as the power his country’s oil wealth gives him.
Indeed when there was talk of expanding the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members, Brazil was unanimously proposed as the representative of South America on the council. Compare that to Africa where no unanimous candidate ever emerged. South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt still jostle for pre-eminence.
Brazil has not always been like this. For most of the twentieth century, it was, like most of South America, ruled by military dictators with scant regard for human rights.
Its major cities were ruled by crime lords and human life was very cheap.
The countryside was owned by big land-owners with little respect for the rule of law. It was not yet powerful enough for the world’s powerful nations and organisations (the International Olympic Committee(IOC) is one such organisation) to look the other way as human rights were violated and allow it to stage a major international cultural showpiece.
Of course, even during the dictatorship, the football was still breathtakingly beautiful and captivated the whole world. Many of the stars still flocked to Europe. The excesses of the modern day carnival were the same even then.
The rhythm of the samba and salsa pulsated in Brazilian veins. Beach volleyball showed off enchantingly beautiful women. Still the IOC was not persuaded that a Brazilian city was worth a second look.
Even FIFA, under its then powerful and long serving president, Joao Havalenge, did not consider his country for a chance to host the football world cup despite an obvious claim to it.
All this changed last week. Rio de Janeiro beat Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago to the prize. And the manner in which it was done is proof of Brazil’s emergence as an economic power.
First in its favour was the cash – a whopping $17 billion available to spend on the games. Not many countries have that kind of money to splash around, especially during the current recession.
Sport is big business. Even amateur sport has increasingly become commercialised. The size of the cheque and the balance sheet are now primary considerations in sports decisions.
So the city with the best business potential has become increasingly attractive to the IOC Executive committee.
One felt Rio de Janeiro had a lot to offer when it beat Chicago which was supported by an array of stars.
President Barrack Obama and his wife Michele made a personal pitch for their home city. They made a personal appearance in Copenhagen in order to sway the IOC chiefs to their city. It didn’t work. Political power and Obama’s noted oratory did not move the IOC bosses. Despite its enormous wealth, the US is still at the beginning of a recovery from the recession. Their business mind felt it was not quite safe to invest there.
There are other instances of power dictating the choice of sports venues. China’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics was in recognition of its emergence as a world economic power.
The more than one billion Chinese had not, until then, been enough persuasion to bring the games to China. It was only when China gained big economic muscle that this was possible.
Even concerns of human rights violations were not enough to deny China the right to the games once it was firmly in the club of the most powerful nations. Of course there were protests, but they were really token gestures to ease the conscience of the self-appointed guardians of international morality. The games were held in Beijing and they were a whopping success.
Nowhere is the power of money in sport more blatantly evident as in the Gulf states, particularly Qatar and Bahrain. Their money continues to lure a succession of star middle and long-distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia.
These world class athletes are promptly given citizenship and Arab names to stamp their new status and then compete in those countries’ colours. The move of the East African athletes that began as a trickle threatens to become an exodus.
It is reminiscent of an earlier, more painful movement of hundreds of thousands of East Africans to the Middle East.
The whiff of Gulf money is even stronger in the professional sports.
The Gulf States do not have local tennis, golf or rugby players of any note. Nor do they have Formula One drivers to speak of.
Yet world class events in these sports are regularly held there. Lavish prize money obviously more than offsets the absence of local talent.
So, are hosts of world sport events selected on the basis of sporting prowess, large fan base, or other sentimental reasons? Banish the thought.
The size of the purse counts. Commercial interests reign supreme. Cold calculations of cash benefits matter.