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Commonwealth Games Offer Lessons For Russia, Brazil

Fireworks light up the sky above the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium at the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Big sporting events bring big controversies. But the controversy surrounding the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi is unbefitting of the world’s largest democracy. Before the games even began, the event was rocked with myriad scandals: collapsed bridges, child labor, Dengue fever, dogs and snakes in the athletes’ dorms, doping scandals, and $80 toilet paper made for an inauspicious start to the games, which kicked off October 3 and end on October 14.

The Commonwealth Games are held every four years, largely as a display of solidarity among the nations of the former British Empire. This year’s games in Delhi, coupled with the launch of an international symbol for the Indian rupee, were supposed to symbolize India’s rightful place at the table of rising economic powers. Following on the heels of a major Pakistani cricket scandal, the games could have been used to highlight yet another Indian accomplishment at the expense of its traditional rival.

The Delhi games must be given credit for their resiliency. The games have gone off without serious problems. The organizers chased out the dogs and patched up the stadiums because the games -- like any other spectacle -- must go on. They even provided logistical support and removed entrance fees at India’s star tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal, for athletes.

Luckily for India, it will have a chance to prove itself again early next year when it jointly hosts the 2011 Cricket World Cup with its neighbors Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Cricket, we should recall, is a slightly more popular sport in the subcontinent than – say – women’s discus throwing or the triple jump.

Double-Edged Sword

For future Olympic organizers, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from the 2010 Delhi public-relations fiasco and from the 2004 Athens games. Hosting these events is a double-edged sword, offering both opportunities and risks. It can offer an immense image boost like that which accompanied Beijing 2008. Or it can provide huge embarrassments like this year’s Commonwealth Games. It can spur economic growth and revitalization (Barcelona 1992). Or it can contribute to out-of-control government spending and economic ruin (Athens 2004).

The Delhi games come as the world prepares for several mega-sporting events in rising powers over the next decade. Russia will host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and Brazil will host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The Delhi Commonwealth Games also come on the heels of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Delhi’s embarrassment is surely being watched closely by Brazilian and Russian organizers who are facing their own challenges.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have drawn criticism practically since the southern Russian city was awarded the honor. Earlier this year, Sergei Volkov, a geological consultant to the games, warned of landslides among other dangers at the site. Others have decried the games’ encroachment on the Caucasian State Nature Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because Sochi borders the restless North Caucasus region, Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, has warned that terrorists could sabotage preparations for the games or attack the games themselves.

But the biggest criticism has come from political groups. Russia's decision to use Abkhaz housing and resources while preparing the games has angered Georgia, with whom Russia fought a war in 2008 over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi has not ruled out the possibility of a Georgian boycott of the Sochi games.

The Georgians have found unlikely allies in the Circassian diaspora. Circassians have used the Sochi games to bring attention to the bloody 1864 Russian invasion and conquest of their homeland, which they consider to be the world’s first modern genocide. Some 2 million Circassians live in Turkey and other countries of the Middle East, descendents of those who fled the invasion or were deported in its wake.

Krasnaya gorka (Red Hill), which will host skiing and snowboarding events, is the location of an 1864 massacre to which the Circassian community is trying to draw attention. Circassians have launched websites and participated in a conference in Tbilisi earlier this year calling on the Georgian government to recognize the Circassian genocide.

When the Summer Olympics move to Rio de Janeiro two years later, the worry will be crime, not terrorism. Rio’s levels of crime and gang violence are among the highest in the world and may keep tourists away. But Brazilian officials remain confident that security will not be an issue. Since Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup two years before their Olympic coming-out party, they will have valuable experience to draw from.

Brazil’s ability to capture both the Olympics and World Cup in a single decade puts the spotlight on Brazil’s rising economic power and global influence. Brazil has risen faster than India or China but has failed to attract as much attention from the West. Like Rio de Janiero’s iconic Sugar Loaf Hill, Brazil is seen as a gentle giant with a view toward the easygoing beach life rather than toward the centers of world power.

Hosting two high-profile events in one decade may change that.

The New Chic

The host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics will be announced in mid-2013 at a conference in Buenos Aires. It seems the big spending on bids for high-profile sporting events may be over. Austerity is the new chic.

Tellingly the 2018 Winter games attracted only three bids -- from France, Germany, and South Korea. Korea’s Pyeongchang is the candidate that appears to have the inside track. No Asian country has hosted the Winter Olympics since 1998.

The International Olympic Committee has made clear its hope to continue the trend by awarding the decade’s final big sporting event – the 2020 Summer Olympics – to a developing country. Guadalajara, Rabat, Istanbul, Doha, and several South African cities have all expressed interest in hosting the event. The global financial situation has had its impact on other candidate cities. Cities from Prague to Kuala Lumpur have already canceled their bids.

The 2004 Athens games were largely built on borrowed money, and such spending clearly contributed to Greece’s current fiscal woes. For developing countries, the pressure for perfection and spectacle is considerably greater than a developed country feels. Preparations for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London have received far less global attention. The Brazilian and Russian organizers need to learn from the experiences of the Delhi games and from Athens 2004 if they hope to avoid writing their own Greek tragedy.

Joseph Hammond is a collegiate network fellow at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.