LONDON—Like a time-honored ritual, the run-up to any world-class sporting event is always the same. A few months before, the stadiums aren’t ready and the hotels have no hot water. The highways are dirt tracks and the athletes have nowhere to sleep. The local newspapers predict calamity. Will the beach volleyball final not be held for lack of a net? Will the qualifying match between Paraguay and Ivory Coast be abandoned because the referees couldn’t land at the unfinished airport?
But it never happens. Somehow, the Olympics, or the World Cup, or whatever impossibly extravagant spectacle is in question, always goes on. The South Africans or the Russians or the British work all day and all night, throw money at the infrastructure, and pull it off: The basketball arena is finished, the ski jump is a triumph.
This week, the same ritual has unfolded once again. Less than 48 hours before the first match of the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, took to the airwaves to declare that the “pessimists” had been defeated and her country was ready to greet the world. And if Brazil continues to follow the pattern, the moment of crisis will indeed pass. Relief will lead to euphoria—the national mood will lift, the crowds will be harmonious, the national team will be cheered—which will in turn be replaced by … regret.
The recent historical record is unambiguous. Several of South Africa’s stadiums—like many of those in South Korea and Japan, which jointly hosted the World Cup in 2002, or those Beijing built for the 2008 Olympics—are scarcely used. The concrete poured for the Sochi Winter Olympics is already cracking. The widely trumpeted post-Olympic regeneration of East London has yet to materialize. Almost everywhere, the vast expenditures now required to host the biggest international sports competitions heavily outweigh the benefits.
The aftermath in Brazil will be different only because the regret arrived in advance. For months now, protesters of various stripes have picketed stadiums, dressed the World Cup mascot up as a Mafioso, and created street art, including paintings of a child with nothing but a soccer ball to eat. Having watched the mounting bills and diminishing payoffs that followed the World Cup in other countries, Brazilian voters already know that some of their stadiums will become white elephants. They don’t need to wait until the tourists go home in order to learn that money thrown around during the last-minute construction frenzy will be wasted.
Around the world, other governments have observed Brazilians’ reaction. In recent months, German, Swiss, Swedish, and Polish bids to hold the 2022 Winter Olympics have been withdrawn over concerns about cost. Munich and Davos-St. Moritz withdrew after voters rejected their Olympic bids. So did Krakow, where more than 70 percent voted against the idea in a referendum, despite the perceived success of the feel-good European soccer championships held in Poland and Ukraine in 2012.
The only remaining bidders for 2022 are likely to be Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, both of which are, not coincidentally, authoritarian countries where the voters’ views will not be taken into account, where street protesters will not be allowed to picket the half-built stadiums, and where leaders jump at the chance to strut on the world stage. For similar reasons, the location of the next two World Cups isn’t a coincidence either: Russia will host in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Bribery on a massive scale partly explains Qatar’s successful bid—the Sunday Times of London has found “millions” of emails and banks statements to prove it—but so does both countries’ confidence that there won’t be any opposition, and certainly no unpleasant referendums. Among other things, the Qataris, unlike the Brazilians, know they can finance their World Cup construction projects with the use of virtual slave labor: More than 400 Nepali construction workers have already died on World Cup construction sites.
Democracies can’t get away with this kind of abuse. Nor would most elected leaders relish a repeat of the massive Brazilian street protests that have sent President Rousseff’s poll ratings plummeting. The Brazilians still have to get through the 2016 Summer Olympics, and Tokyo will host in 2020—assuming that neither is derailed by protests or angry voters. In the future, maybe democratic governments won’t be able to get away with spending the billions on sports that now seem to be required. Brazil’s World Cup will be the last to be held in a democracy for eight years. Will it be the last one ever?