With the Winter Olympics having ended with the prompt invasion by the host country, Russia, of its neighbor Ukraine, expectations for the lasting benefits of large-scale international sporting events are probably at a relatively low ebb now. It is worth noting, though, that Ukraine did end up 20th in the medal table at Sochi — while Russia took top honors, with 13 gold medals and 33 medals overall — so Ukraine probably should have been expecting military action of some sort, regardless of how successful the protesters in Kiev ultimately were.
The next big event on the calendar is the World Cup, which is less than 100 days away and is being hosted by Brazil. Unfortunately, reports are feverishly circulating that key deadlines still are being missed. This week, FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, even cast doubts on whether necessary IT will be in place to allow the games to be broadcast to the eager international audience.
Of the 12 stadiums that will be used, only seven have been completed. With more than 3 million fans attending the games, including 600,000 foreigners, delays with much-needed improvements to transportation links, including airports and trains, risk throwing the tournament into disarray.
Perhaps more worrying, though, is the noticeable decline in popular support for the World Cup among Brazilians. From an approval rating in 2008 of almost 80 percent, now just over half of Brazilians believe that the tournament is a good thing for the country. In addition to construction accidents at the stadiums, which have left six people dead, protests have plagued Brazil in recent months.
Since June 2013, when millions took advantage of a warm-up tournament, which was staged to "test-drive" many of the key facilities, to take to the streets and voice their frustration with the flagrant waste of money, a growing worry has been that the World Cup will be marred by demonstrations and violence. Last month, Rio de Janeiro saw riots on its streets as protesters confronted police while demonstrating against the shocking state of transportation. Buses are frequently burned as a sign of protest. In a country where the divide between the rich and the poor is often clearly on display, many of the powerful and the privileged make use of helicopters in order to avoid the congestion on Brazilian roads.
With anarchist groups specifically threatening to disrupt the World Cup, which kicks off in June, there is a significant risk of political violence at the tournament, despite the fact that 150,000 police officers are tasked with maintaining the peace. In an attempt to maintain the confidence of would-be tourists still considering whether to book tickets, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said, "If need be, we shall send in the army."
Well, that's encouraging!
Concerns about safety in Brazil are not groundless. The streets of Rio and other large Brazilian cities are plagued by crime. In a commonly used ploy known as "dragnet" and frequently used on beaches, large groups of youths will charge into an area at the same time, stealing whatever they can from the shocked bystanders, and then simply run away, confident that in such numbers, they will not be identified or arrested. Despite a dip in crime statistics, violent crimes are now on the rise again.
To make matters worse, the police are threatening strikes during the World Cup in order to voice their displeasure. President Rousseff and her government face great embarrassment if images of violence are broadcast across the world — a problem Vladimir Putin avoided during the Winter Olympics, which occurred within a "ring of steel" enforced by ample security officers.
And, in case all of this weren't bad enough, there were reports last month that Sao Paulo — which hosts the opening game of the tournament, between Brazil and Croatia — could face water shortages during the World Cup because of a record drought. Tourists could find water rationing in effect when they come to cheer on their favorite team.
Everyone packed and ready to go?
Importantly, the World Cup is only the first of a two-part sporting extravaganza in Brazil. Rio will follow up in 2016 by hosting the Summer Olympics. On the one hand, many of the facilities being built will be used again in just two years' time. As a result, the "white elephant" problem that shadows so many large international events, with buildings left vacant and transportation hubs clearly underutilized, has been kicked down the road for at least a while. On the other hand, tourists optimistic enough to attend the World Cup may be much more hesitant to return if the tournament is not safe and secure.
The eyes of the world will be on Brazil in less than 100 days. Let's hope the image that lingers in people's minds after the last ball has been kicked is a positive one.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.