Recent Olympics and World Cups have left an unwanted ‘legacy of white elephants’

Posted on 20 May 2021

​Major sporting events during the last 15 years have left an unwanted “legacy of white elephants” from empty stadiums to unused transport infrastructure, according to a critical analysis by Engineers Against Poverty.

Stadiums built for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in South Africa and Brazil have been haemorrhaging taxpayers money in the years since the respective tournaments ended, the report concludes.

The same can be seen in Delhi concerning the 12 new facilities built for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, according to a new report by Engineers Against Poverty which focusses on Accountability in Mega Sport Event infrastructure delivery.

But the unwanted legacy is not consigned to the stadiums hosting the major events.

For the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, the government built a mega-structure of road and rail links, with tunnels and bridges connecting the coast to the mountains at the cost of US $10bn (£7bn), approximately 20% of the total costs of the Games.

Despite the significant investment, these structures have not been fully utilised since. Engineers Against Poverty’s report states that the infrastructure operation and maintenance costs taxpayers US $1.2bn (£760M) a year.

The report adds: “A legacy of ‘white elephant’ projects is one of the consequences of the lack of accountability in MSEs. Four cities in Brazil where arenas were constructed for the 2014 World Cup – Manaus, Cuiabá, Natal and Brasília – have no major football teams active in relevant leagues and now face the challenge of making these constructions profitable (or at least less of a burden on taxpayers).

“In South Africa, 10 stadia built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup are also not used by the local population. The same can be seen in Delhi concerning the 12 new facilities built for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. These facilities become stranded assets and pose integration and usage challenges in future urban planning in the host country.”

It adds: “One solution to mititgate the impact of such projects could have been to ensure they had an adaptable design which served local communities after the events.

“Consulting the public during planning and delivery stages could have highlighted this issue and prevented these white elephant projects for which there is no post event demand.”

Author of the paper, Maria da Graça Prado added: “When decisions are made in haste and citizens left on the sidelines, we continue to see white elephant projects and a huge waste of public funds in addition to poor quality infrastructure and a lack of trust in delivery authorities and governments.”

To address these issues the paper calls for the following measures to be put in place:

  • To improve access to information bids submitted to host the games should include a requirement for infrastructure project and contract documents to be published. Restrictions on the rights to information laws must be removed. Sports organisations should lead by example by changing their non-profit status, which, among other things, will ensure they abide by broader information disclosure obligations.

  • A multi-stakeholder approach delivered through tools such as infrastructure planning forums could help to highlight and ensure citizens’ concerns on issues such as value for money and the impact of the construction on their everyday lives are heard, understood and mitigated. The forums could typically bring together citizens with sports organisers, infrastructure agencies, government and business.

  • Other innovative means to further include citizens could see that community groups are trained to monitor and evaluate infrastructure projects. Those trained could then report to monitoring bodies to further strengthen oversight on the projects. Online accountability spaces could also ensure citizens and civic groups are able to express their views when in-person means are not possibly.

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