White Elephants and Corruption: The History of Mega Sporting Events in Lebanon

White Elephants and Corruption: The History of Mega Sporting Events in Lebanon

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Danyel Reiche, an associate professor for Comparative Politics at the American University of Beirut (AUB), looks into Lebanese politics and major sport events.

The stand of Saida International Stadium with a well occupied (and slightly rubbish strewn) beach in the foreground – Creator: Peripitus. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

After the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), the multi religious country hosted four mega sporting events: two multi sport events—the Pan Arab Games in 1997 and the Francophone Games in 2009; and two continental championships in football and basketball—the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in 2000 and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Cup in 2017. The events illustrate the different identities of Lebanon as an Arab, Asian, and Francophone country.

The Lebanese government and particularly Rafiq Hariri, prime minister from 1992–1998 and 2000–2004, supported the bids for the 1997 Pan Arab Games, the 2000 AFC Asian Cup, and the 2009 Francophone Games as symbols of rebuilding the country and post war recovery. The initial idea was to host the three mega sporting events within a brief period. However, Lebanon’s first two bids for the Francophone Games in 2001 and 2005 were unsuccessful. Unlike the events in 1997, 2000, and 2009, the government was not behind the bid the FIBA Asia Cup 2017; the initiative came solely from the basketball federation. However, the government eventually supported the event.

Small and Developing Countries as Hosts

The academic literature on mega sporting events neglects the role of small, developing countries as hosts. While there is a rich body of academic literature on mega sporting events, most of this work focuses on the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games that are mainly hosted by large, developed countries such as Germany, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. A recent trend is that these events are also being hosted by emerging countries such as Brazil (World Cup 2014, Summer Olympic Games 2016), China (Summer Olympic Games 2008, Winter Olympic Games 2022), and South Africa (FIFA World Cup 2010) that have large populations and maintain leading roles in regional politics. An exception to this trend is Qatar, a small country with a population of about 2.5 million people (a clear majority of whom are not citizens of the country) that will host the FIFA World Cup 2022. However, Qatar is economically very strong and per capita income in the Gulf country is the highest in the world.

Only twenty-four countries have ever hosted Summer or Winter Olympics in the entire history of the Games (1896–2018). The remaining 182 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) that were recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in September 2018 have never hosted the games. While some emerging countries such as South Africa and India may be hosts in the future, a clear majority of countries will most likely never be able to host the Games due to their economy, geography, climate, or other factors.

The FIFA Men’s World Cup was even hosted by fewer countries than the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. In 2018 and 2022 Russia and Qatar will be the seventeenth and eighteenth countries, respectively, to host the FIFA World Cup, a tournament that began in 1930. This means that only 8.53 percent of the 211 FIFA members (as of September 2018) have ever hosted the Men’s World Cup.

By mainly focusing on the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, events that are classified in the literature as “Tier 1 sports mega events,” research neglects two important characteristics of mega sporting events: first, a vast majority of mega sporting events are continental and regional games (“Tier 2” and “Tier 3” events, as they are known) and second, not all hosts are large, developed nation states. Many Tier 2 and Tier 3 events are hosted by small, developing countries that are often considered part of the global periphery. For these nations, continental and regional games are the most they can achieve as a host country of mega-sporting events.

All About Prestige

By hosting the Pan Arab Games in 1997, the AFC Asian Cup in 2000, the Francophone Games in 2009, and the FIBA Asian Cup in 2017, sport became a symbol of Lebanon’s post war recovery and for rebuilding the country. Rebuilding the Sports City Stadium in Beirut, destroyed by Israeli bombs during the civil war, was of major symbolic importance in that it showcased Lebanon’s economic and political achievements in post war reconstruction. Winning the bid for the AFC Asian Cup in 2000 against Asian powerhouse China was a remarkable success for Lebanon. Members from foreign governments and presidents from sports governing bodies such as the IOC and FIFA visited Lebanon for the events, making these an effective soft power tool for the small country.

Lebanon proved that it can organize major events and, as one member of the government framed it, is “back on the world map.” The events gave Lebanon regional (Pan Arab Games), continental (AFC Asian Cup, FIBA Asian Cup), and partly global (Francophone Games, AFC Asian Cup) exposure. Members of the Lebanese government used the opening ceremonies as an opportunity to portray to the world that the Mediterranean nation state is a diverse, democratic, and tolerant country.

The Flipside of Mega Events

However, some articles published in the domestic and international press prior to and during the events were less favorable toward the host country. Negative media coverage began prior to the events when many reports expressed concerns that the facilities would not be ready in time. During the tournaments, many in the media pointed out the low number of spectators attending the matches, even comparing the stadiums to cemeteries. Poorly attended events are attributed not only to the absence of many international stars competing, but also to the lack of sporting success of local athletes that prevented a temporary “feel good factor” and sense of national pride in a divided country.

Affording a White Elephant 

While the idea behind the Pan Arab Games is to make a statement for Arab unity, banning Iraq from participation and spectator violence in the football final between Jordan and Syria in 1997 showcased tensions within the Arab world that became even worse in the two decades following the event. The main failure of the 1997 Pan Arab Games, the 2000 AFC Asian Cup, and the 2009 Francophone Games is the absence of a legacy management program that deals with the post event use of the facilities. While the venue of the 2017 FIBA Asian Cup will be utilized by a local basketball team, the International Olympic stadium in Tripoli is a “white elephant” that has hardly been used since the AFC Asian Cup in 2000 – a prohibitively expensive yet largely unused venue. Maintenance budgets have become tools for stealing money while the facilities are dirty and rusty, reflecting the serious problem of corruption in Lebanon.

Grow the Grassroots

Overall, there is a mixed picture when assessing Lebanon’s experiences with hosting mega sporting events, with some short term image gains but few indications of long term benefits for the country. During FIBA Asia 2017, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that his country “is willing to host any regional or international sports tournaments,” but I believe that Lebanon should take a more critical stand and give priority to youth and grassroots sports programs before hosting other mega sporting events. If Lebanon does host other mega sporting events, it should consider co-hosting them with other countries to limit the risks.

There are some broader conclusions that also apply to other host countries of Tier 2 and Tier 3 mega sporting events, particularly those that are small and moderately developing like Lebanon. Governments from around the world tend to focus on the potential gains and to ignore the risks of hosting mega sporting events. In non-democratic countries, there is typically no critical discourse around the bidding processes. While hosting Tier 2 and Tier 3 mega sporting events may have some short term promotional benefits for the country, the case of Lebanon shows the difficulties in generating enthusiasm beyond the competitions, the lack of strategies for the post event use of facilities, and the financial burden on the government for building and maintaining stadiums and sports halls.

Co Hosting a Shared Burden

One could argue that small, developing countries, such as Lebanon, which struggle to provide their populations with basic needs, should not host mega sporting events. However, a proposed alternative is co hosting future events with other countries. Just eleven days after FIBA Asia 2017 in Lebanon concluded, the continental championship in European basketball started and set an excellent example for the future of Tier 2 and Tier 3 mega sporting events. EuroBasket 2017 was hosted by four countries: Finland, Israel, Romania, and Turkey. Two years earlier, EuroBasket 2015 was the first European basketball championship to be hosted by more than one country: matches took place in Croatia, France, Germany, and Latvia. While Lebanon hosted the AFC Asian Cup in 2000 by itself, the continental football championship in Europe, the Euro, was co hosted by Austria and Switzerland in 2008, countries with similar populations to Lebanon, and by Poland and Ukraine in 2012. These examples demonstrate that multinational hosting is gaining popularity. Co hosting may increase local community acceptance, an important feat given the growing skepticism in many countries toward hosting large scale sporting events. Apart from reducing costs and avoiding “white elephants,” joint bids also enhance cooperation between countries, a positive effect particularly for regions such as the Middle East that are characterized more by conflict then cooperation.

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