It was no secret that at least four of the 12 stadiums Brazil built or renovated to host the 2014 World Cup would turn into white elephants shortly after the tournament ended. Still, the scale of at least four of the stadiums’ obsolescence less than a year after the World Cup ended should be a staggering warning to countries that go all-in to host these events.
According to NPR’s Lourdes Garcia Navarro, the four most controversial stadiums Brazil built for the World Cup are struggling to attract events that will keep them financially viable. The stadiums in Natal and Manaus, both built in part with public funding, are up for sale to private companies (in Natal’s case, this is the second such sale) because they haven’t brought in enough events. In Cuiaba, the site of a $250 million venue, the stadium has been shut down over construction safety issues. But the most striking example of Brazil’s World Cup problems is in the capital city of Brasilia, where the most expensive of the country’s World Cup stadiums is now serving only as a parking lot for public buses.
The problems were inevitable even before the tournament. But the symbolism of Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional serving as a bus lot is striking: an increase in public bus and transportation fares was one of the major triggers for the massive protests all across the country in the run-up to the World Cup, when Brazilians took to the streets to ask why the country was spending so much money — a total of $3 billion on sports stadiums — while raising some prices and neglecting other public services. Brasilia itself is indicative of this problem: according to one Brazilian government watchdog, 80 percent of Brasilia’s schools lack adequate facilities. Now, the stadiums are again indicative of those same problems, as a slumping economy has led to budget cuts and potential tax increases while four World Cup venues sit empty and barely used less than a year later.
The problems around the four stadiums are even starker next to the other unfulfilled promises of Brazil’s World Cup. The government promised that it would invest heavily into long-term infrastructure projects — airports, roads, light-rail systems — that would leave a lasting legacy aside from the soccer stadiums. But a government report released in December said that Brazil overspent on stadiums by $1 billion while failing to complete most of the other projects. Of 35 public transit proposals, for instance, just five were complete at the start of the tournament.
The legacy of Brazil’s World Cup, it seems, is a disaster of consequences its own people saw coming early in the process and can’t possibly deny now.
“I don’t see any World Cup legacy to Brazil except the debts we have inherited and the problems we now have,” Jose Cruz, a sports reporter in Brasilia, told NPR. “The World Cup is over; we are suffering with everything that came after.”
Brazil is now rapidly preparing to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and its planned $10.6 billion in spending for that event includes another $2 billion on sporting venues, according to proposals. The government report insisted that the World Cup infrastructure projects will eventually be completed, and there are more planned around the Olympics. But the pressure to complete Olympic construction on time, alongside the budget cuts and the failures around the World Cup, have raised obvious concerns that the longer-term projects with wider public benefits will continue to languish.
And those are just the financial problems, which in the grand scale of Brazil’s economy aren’t necessarily that big (though, as one activist said when it began, the local costs are much more burdensome). There is also a substantial human cost to these events. Brazil has relocated thousands of poor families out of their homes and neighborhoods to make way for these events. It did so around the World Cup and is doing so again now: one poor neighborhood is being cleared to make way for the Olympic Village. The housing for athletes will become luxury condos after the Games are over.
This is not only a Brazil story. From China to England to the United States, the relocating of poor residents to make way for sporting venues is a common part of mega-event preparations; the landscapes of previous hosts, meanwhile, are dotted with stadiums and venues that quickly became obsolete. Even before Brazil hosts the Olympics next summer, it should be a warning to future hosts that the games rarely if ever deliver on their promises, and their true costs are often only apparent once the events themselves are gone.