Back in the summer of 2011, the London Olympic organisers staged a series of test events. Beach volleyball was held in Horse Guards Parade at the precise moment what seemed to be half of London was enveloped by rioting, a tsunami of broken glass sweeping across the capital.
At the volleyball beach, Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, was besieged by reporters ahead of the first service on the sand. How on earth can you think of holding an Olympics, he was asked, when Croydon is burning? Surely the government cannot hope to guarantee the safety of competitors when the country’s youth has shown how hapless and inadequate is the Metropolitan Police.
Robertson insisted there would be no problem, a reaction which was condemned at the time as the ultimate in complacency. Yet the politician may have had a point: London 2012 didn’t work out too badly, did it? It seemed to go all right.
So it is in Brazil this week. Even as the Confederations Cup is supposed to be demonstrating that the country is ready to host the World Cup next summer, the local youth has gone uppity. Riots have broken out across the country, largely provoked by the huge cost of staging 2014’s goal fest. And many are already suggesting that the unrest is proof Brazil is not ready.
Well, I will make a prediction here: the 2014 World Cup will be a triumph, a month long carnival of sport and fun. Brazil will prove absolutely the ideal place to stage the tournament. And Fifa can preen itself on its wise choice of host, something it will be pushed to do when the next two World Cups roll out in Russia and Qatar.
And yet still there is something unsettling about those images of rioters protesting against the competition. It seems entirely counter-intuitive to what we understand about Brazil. The idea that a country supposedly obsessed with the game should baulk at the prospect of inviting the world to play is bizarre.
But then it is not the whole country. Just as it was not the whole of London looting the streets in 2011. Besides, this is what always happens ahead of a big sporting tournament: the ne’er-do-wells whinge and moan about the cost and some of them take to the streets. The author Iain Sinclair spent about five years ahead of the London Olympics trying to foment rebellion about 2012. That his endless predictions of civil disharmony over the cost of a festival of running and jumping never came to fruition does not diminish the fact he made them.
What is more interesting about the Brazil experience is the numbers of those moved to make a point similar to Sinclair: that sport can never justify the kind of public outlay that would be better deployed building hospitals and schools. Tens of thousands of Brazilians have been involved in the demonstrations: these are not isolated opinions.
And in a sense it is the inevitable corollary of political insistence that holding the World Cup – and two years later the Olympics – will transform Brazil. This is what modern politicians do in order to secure major sporting events these days: they oversell what they can deliver.
Ahead of the Euros last summer, the Ukraine government was insisting that they would put the country on the map. The huge public spending on airports, roads and stadiums would be a signal that Ukraine was a modern, efficient European nation ready to do business with the rest of the world. But let’s be honest here, has anyone heard a thing about Ukraine since?
Likewise Greece in 2004, China in 2008 and South Africa in 2010: all of them were meant to be utterly changed by their hosting. The ANC government justified the huge cost of the South African World Cup with the claim it would transform the nation. Three years on that looks a hollow promise.
With white elephant stadiums mothballed, with the interest on the debt accrued to build them mounting by the day, you would be pushed to find a single South African who has been lifted out of poverty by the hosting of a football tournament.
London 2012 was the same. It wasn’t just a festival of sport we were staging. We were told the Olympics were the key to rebuilding our society, cleaning up a vast tract of the east end and getting the nation off its sofa. That was the legacy. A year on, did it happen?
Of course, it is difficult to sell expenditure of several billion pounds on a fortnight of national partying, but in reality that is largely what international sporting competitions deliver.
What the Brazilians rioters are baulking against is not the World Cup, certainly not the idea of football, a game close to a religion thereabouts. What they object to is the lie that this is somehow going to modernise their nation. It won’t. It will just be a month of unprecedented fun. Nothing wrong with that. You just wish sometimes politicians would be realistic about what these tournaments really mean.