Friday, July 10, 2015

"Circus Maximus," by Andrew Zimbalist, on Barcelona

The economist Andrew Zimbalist has recently published an excellent book about "the economic gamble behind hosting the Olympics and the World Cup" entitled "Circus Maximus." The book summarizes for a broad audience the academic literature about hosting big sports events, such as Olympic Games and soccer World Cups. The conclusion of this literature is clear and almost unanimous: there are higher social costs than social benefits involved in hosting these events for cities or countries. The financial gains are captured by the international governing bodies of the Olympic family (the IOC) and global soccer (FIFA), two organizations that are well known for their past or present corrupt practices. The economic legacy is always exagerated and unclear. The book devotes some space to one supposed exception to this trend: the Olympic Games of Barcelona in 1992. These games would be an exception because the organization was preceded by a previous urban plan, and the games were put at the service of this plan. There were other factors that surely made Barcelona 1992 an exception, such as Barcelona having some clearly untapped assets due to marginalization in the Franco centralist dictatorship that had just ended some years before, and the partnership between private and public investors (although the figures are somehow fuzzy on this). I was there, because I was a (very young) city councillor between 1991 and 1995, and I was member of the city government who promoted and organized the games. Of course my role was minimal, as I was the youngest councilor, in charge of youth policy and related issues. But I was a witness to the popularity of the games and the (I believe) good organization. But with the benefit of hindsight, and knowing now well the literature (subsequent to the Barcelona games, and almost unknown in Barcelona and Spain) reviewed by Zimbalist, I believe that the picture that he paints is even too optimistic about Barcelona. Although of course the games in Barcelona were better than others, there are two issues he doesn't mention about our city, somehow inconsistently with things he says in the rest of the book. One is that Barcelona has also left a legacy of white elephants. In particular, the two most important sports facilities of the games, the Olympic stadium and the Palau Sant Jordi, do not have a regular use and are a costly burden for the city. Additionally, although he argues convincingly that after the games Barcelona has become a big tourist power, he doesn't answer a question he asks previously in the book: could that have been achieved by other cheaper means? For example, an additional Woody Allen movie or something similar. After all, the millions of tourists that visit Barcelona every year visit places that were here long before the games (the Ramblas, the Gaudi buildings). Other aspects that emerged from the games were positive, in addition to aspects mentioned by Zimbalist, for example the fact that the political leader of the games, mayor Pasqual Maragall, some years later made possible the end of the monopoly of the regional government by the nationalist right. I agree however with the general message of Zimbalist: the circumstances that surrounded Barcelona 1992 were exceptional, and one should not expect them to happen somewhere else. Very recently, the new mayor of Barcelona has decided to withdraw the candidacy of Barcelona-Pyrinees to host a winter Olympic Games. I just regret that she didn't put the decision to a referendum (as the mayor of Boston has done), because then people would have been aware of the urgency to read the book by Zimbalist and question the myth of big sports events.

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