Russia and Brazil are going to do it, China and South Africa have already done it and Turkey is a big contender for the future. For once I’m not talking about a new economic or financial milestone, but instead the hosting of global mega-events, such as the World Cup, Olympics or European Football Championship. Developing countries are new this game, despite the massive cost and risk of these events, the unquantifiable increase in prestige, soft power and expression of mass public diplomacy they offer seems to make them irresistible.
If Brazil pulls off a successful World Cup and Olympic Games over the next 4 years it could change the country’s image from one of football, beaches and deadly violence to one of a modern well organised economy with an energetic culture. But if things go wrong, the world will be questioning the wisdom of allowing a developing country to organise such an event and why a nation with such entrenched poverty chose this path. The risks are even bigger for Russia, which hosts the Winter Olympics in 2014 and World Cup in 2018. These events could well be targeted by democracy and human rights protestors keen to undermine Putin’s long reign by embarrassing the government while the world is watching. The vast size of the country will make it a logistical challenge for fans to travel from game to game and the strength of Russian infrastructure will be tested to the limit.
Qatar was the surprise choice for the 2022 World Cup. The country has the money to fund the event, thanks to a tiny population and huge oil wealth it has the highest per capita income in the world. Hosting the World Cup is part of Qatar’s policy of promoting itself on the international stage. But again the event will focus attention on the country’s repressive (in Western eyes) attitude towards women, democracy and human rights.
Soft power, public diplomacy and national branding are increasingly viewed as crucial to nations around the world, as Simon Anholt will attest. But public relation drives and major events can only go so far in improving a country’s image. The fundamentals of having a country with values and culture that are attractive and admirable to others have to be there in the first place.