A developing nation needs more than good sports

The FIFA World Cup is set to begin in South Africa this week, and sports fans everywhere are preparing for the world’s second biggest sporting event after the Summer Olympics. The significance of the tournament is lost on many people in Canada and the United States, but its scope is international and its effects far-reaching.

It’s easy to be contemptuous of such events. Billions of dollars are spent on player salaries, advertising and infrastructure, like stadia, which solely help athletics. Countries facing off against each other smacks of nationalism, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the World Cup and the Olympics raises questions about whether or not sport is given too much attention.

South Africa has many problems. Over 40 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and one in eight have HIV/AIDS. With such problems it is worth asking if South Africa is ready for such an event. What point of development should a country be at before they are allowed to host the World Cup? The situation of Greece post-Olympics– with major economic problems and a terrible long term outlook for recovery– should serve as a cautionary tale for such events. While the games weren’t the sole cause of Greece’s woes, they did contribute to its current instability. South Africa is the largest economy in Africa and the sustainability of the country shouldn’t be risked for a soccer tournament. Quantifying that risk is the obvious difficulty.

South Africa ranked last in education (out of 133 countries) in this year’s Global Competitive Index, released by the World Economic Forum. Nearly 13 per cent of blacks are illiterate, compared to less than one per cent of whites in the country. While apartheid is gone, the difference in quality of life between blacks and whites is still chasmic. A program of equalization called black economic empowerment has done little to fix the situation– instead it has placed a great deal of wealth into the hands of only a small proportion of blacks.

Yet for all its shortcomings, South Africa also has a tremendous amount to be proud of. They held their first democratic elections in 1994, destroyed their nuclear arsenal and, following apartheid, now have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, recognizing eleven official languages. South Africa is the only African nation to be a member of the G20 and ranks in the top 30 nations for GDP. Some of the measures taken to bring the World Cup to South Africa will aid the country for some time: they have built the continent’s first high speed rail system and improved many highways all in a very short time.

Sport can be a tremendous source of good in the world. To have so many people take part in one event shows the ubiquity of soccer– the sport means the same to people in countries as diverse as El Salvador, Turkey, Italy and Ghana. The danger of having the World Cup in the most developed nations every time is that the others never have a chance to show their improvements. Nations are pressured to change for the better when they know the whole world will be watching, so the opportunity should be provided to those countries who seem willing to improve.

South Africa deserves its chance. They’ve worked hard to get where they are, but they’re not in the clear yet.

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