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Economically, Olympics and World Cup aren't all fun and games


Every time I hear another dismal report about how Greece is going to drag the whole world into an economic abyss, I ask out loud: Does anybody remember that only six years ago Athens proudly hosted the Summer Olympics?

And does anybody remember that when Athens somehow borrowed the scratch to put on those Games, the price tag ended up in the realm of $15 billion -- way above projections? And now a lot of the magnificent facilities are sitting there, rotting away as the streets run to riot.

No, Greece would surely be a financial disaster whether or not it paid through the nose for the honor to stand in the world spotlight for two weeks one summer. But as Vancouver goes about the nasty business of trying to pay off this winter's Olympics and as we approach the World Cup and South Africa sees its bill soar toward $5 billion, it's worth repeating something to the cities and countries that think they can be the apple of the world's eye just by hosting a sports spectacular. The message is there are only two words you can be guaranteed nowadays that will highlight every Olympics and every World Cup, and those are: over budget.

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Likewise, expectations that the big event is going to make a huge positive impact are always the stuff of dreams. Estimates of almost a half-million international visitors to South Africa have already been substantially cut. Moreover, just as costs are invariably underestimated, benefits are always too optimistic. Hopes that the World Cup would put a quarter of the country's unemployed to work were obviously grossly inflated.

Yes, it was benevolent to award the Cup to Africa for the first time. And yes, it's only fair that South America should finally get its first Olympics when Rio hosts the 2016 Games, but, really now, in an age of global television, is it necessary to induce individual countries to pony up for these extravaganzas? As gorgeous as Capetown is, is it necessary to pay billions to show it off to the world with fleeting halftime beauty shots? Somehow I have the feeling that if tourists don't already know about the attractions of Rio from seeing those spicy Carnival photographs every Mardi Gras, billions spent to showcase the likes of gymnastics and field hockey really isn't money wisely spent.

The World Cup and the Olympics belong to us all, and so wouldn't it be more appropriate to spread them around rather than to jam them all into one spot? Why not split them up and play games and events in cities spotted about a whole continent -- Europe one time, North America next, Asia and so on. It's time to stop suckering places that can't afford it into believing they'll miraculously change their fortunes just by paying to be the world's TV studio for a couple of weeks.

Instead, the games end and everybody forgets who just incidentally paid to build all those superfluous stadiums until, like with Athens, something else expensive puts it back on the map.