Thursday, 26 July 2012

As London 2012's opening ceremony looms, what price Durban 2024?

Lord of the Rings: Durban's Moses Mabhida stadium
AS the hours to London’s top-secret opening ceremony in Stratford tick by, talk of a South African Olympic bid are sure to surface once more as the 30th Olympic Games gets ready to rumble.
Thoughts will go back to Cape Town’s failed bid for the 2004 games, which eventually went to the Olympians’ spiritual home in Athens. But anybody who has attended a couple of Olympiads will tell you the Mother’s City’s upstart coastal rival Durban is THE perfect Olympic venue – and I can reveal that the International Olympic Committee are eager to put the City of Bananas forward as potential hosts for 2024 or 2028.
But before we get too carried away, let me tell the full story of this potentially disastrous move.
Back in 2009, when I was covering the England cricket tour for the London Evening Standard, I visited the not-quite-complete Moses Mabhida Stadium a couple of days before the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead.
And there it all was. An Olympics waiting to happen in South Africa. One look at the sparkling new 70,000-capacity football stadium (built with provision for an athletics track if needed), standing barely 400m from the established 60,000-capacity Kings Park rugby stadium wasn’t enough on its own.
As somebody who knew Durban well from my four-year stint on the Natal Mercury and Daily News in the early 1980s, having an athletics stadium next to a major venue for the Olympic soccer was just the beginning. It wasn’t hard to pick out the nearby aquatic centre with indoor and outdoor pools and diving facilities and small-scale athletics track, a perfect warm-up venue next to Kings Park.
Barely a mile away on the other side of the perfectly-positioned railway station, there was Kingsmead, like Lord’s in London, begging to be used for archery, handball or show-jumping.
And of course, the walkway to the north beaches from the Moses Mabhida was under construction. Cue sailing, beach volleyball and triathlon along the old Marine Parade. And for rowing and outdoor swimming? Midmar Dam the other side of Pietermaritzburg. Plus an Olympic marathon stretching halfway along the famous Comrades route. We could talk too of the impressive ICC conference centre next to the Hilton Hotel and Kingsmead for table tennis, badminton and other smaller events.
Up on the Berea the old Sugarbowl tennis complex could be remodelled and across the city, Queensmead offered a purpose-built hockey facility begging to be enlarged.
On top of that, the climate in Durban around this time of year is perfect for sport. And the region offers a vast range of accommodation as an established holiday resort, drawing tourists to it’s warm, sub-tropical climate for decades. And we had the brand new King Shaka airport about to open for the World Cup too.
My vision was soon put in to print and picked up by Sunday Tribune journalist Matthew Savides. Excitement was growing before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and it wasn’t hard to imagine a first African Olympics would follow a the continent’s first tilt at football’s greatest show on earth.
But then came these quotes from veteran British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who has written extensively on corruption in the IOC and Fifa: “Nobody can afford the Games. The budgets are always pitched low by local boosters, then soar.
“The only solution is to build an Olympic venue and keep the games there every four years, in the same city. But if that happened, the IOC would have no international clout and their backsides would not be kissed by monarchs, presidents and prime ministers. And there would be no kickbacks from the construction industry.”
The hype nearly developed in to a bid for 2020, but not quite. As the host cities gathered for 2011, government spokesman Jimmy Manyi revealed the cabinet had decided to "prioritise service delivery" over putting up a bid to host the games, which would have cost around R350m.
He explained: "The government decided it was better for the country to consolidate the gains of last year's World Cup for now and focus attention on the delivery of basic services. If any money is going to be spent, it's going to be on basic service delivery."
Though the bid had support from the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc), local tourism, the eThekwini municpality and the KwaZulu-Natal government, there would be no bid.
But when the 123rd International Olympic Committee met in Durban in July, 2011 the gods of Olympus witnessed for themselves Durban’s potential, as did the delegates who flew in later last year for the COP17 climate change conference.
Sascoc president Gideon Sam remains eager to put Durban forward for 2024 and 2028, while President Jacob Zuma is a known supporter.
But before we get too excited, consider this.
Montreal, the Canadian hosts in 1976, are still struggling to overcome their “Olympic legacy” more than 30 years after their bash at the Games. Sydney, hosts to the most successful Olympiad in modern times in 2000, are struggling to keep their Homebush venues in working order. And the cost of Athens 2004 helped Greece to slide in to the financial mire the Hellenic nation is currently failing to deal with.
London, like Sydney, developed the run-down Stratford area for their Olympics. At the moment it’s all smiles. But the costs of hosting a modern Olympics are ridiculous.
Though Durban has the makings of a perfect host city, conservative estimates hover near the R50bn mark if they are to host a successful games.
As Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid jostle for the right to host 2020, Rio de Janeiro and Brazil are struggling to cope with the upcoming 2014 World Cup, let alone the 2016 Olympics.
The thought of an Olympics in Durban is a truly inspiring one. A major boost for South Africa and the whole continent. But can any nation, given the current global recession, really spend that much money on a sporting event?

Read my first blog on this subject, written in 2009:

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