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Tuesday, July 13, 2010


For a country, success in sports is a function of the country’s economic development.

There are of course exceptions to the rule, the best example being Kenya and Ethiopia’s stranglehold on the middle to long distance events in athletics on one hand and the US, Japan or China’s inability to win an international trophy in soccer.

I have conveniently ignored the women’s world cup -- the US won in 1991 and 1999, to make my point.

A quick calculation by yours truly shows that, thanks to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup this year, Uganda will host the World Cup long before it wins it.

South Africa is the poorest country to ever host the world Cup while Argentina is the poorest country by per capita income to have ever lifted the cup. Uruguay, which won the cup in 1930 and again in 1950, has a per capita income almost twice Argentina’s. Uruguay also hosted the inaugural world cup but has a per capita income almost double South Africa’s.

We could host the World Cup by 2062 and maybe win the cup in the year of our hosting – assuming all things remain constant.

The record shows that a country needs to be at a certain level of development, best measured by the welfare of its people, before it can dream of hosting or winning of a World Cup. And I believe this is no fluke.

The creation of award winning athletes is the business of the whole country – more so with team sports, and not the sole responsibility of the respective sportsman’s family.

In the greater scheme of things sports comes well down the hierarchy of needs after food, shelter, clothing etc.

Politics is important because it determines the economic structure by how the national budget is apportioned and what economic policies are passed.

Providing for your family’s basic needs has more to do with the economy you live in than your own individual level of income and the health of an economy has a lot to do with the politics, the leadership of a country.

A government that stays focused on the ultimate aim of elevating the living standards of its people will have economic policies that will not only encourage growth by allowing the private sector to operate to its full potential, but also distribute this growth to its citizens through delivery of public goods like education, health, physical infrastructure and security.

So a look at the most recent hosts of the World Cup shows that South Africa is the smallest economy – GDP $290b, to ever host a World Cup and also the worst in terms of distribution of this economy.

If you look at the winners Argentina is the smallest economy to ever win at $310b but Brazil is the worst performer at 75th out of 182 on the UN’s Human Development Index, an indicator of how a country does on providing the basics for its people.

So by simple extrapolation assuming Uganda’s $15b economy continues growing at 6% it will take at least 51 years to get to South Africa’s size of economy.

But building the infrastructure to host an event like the World Cup -- it has cost South Africa about $5b in all, cannot happen in isolation of the improved general welfare of the people. A sub plot of the current world cup is the demonstrations against the largesse lavished in hosting the event when the rainbow nation has a few millions languishing in abject poverty.

Using per capita as rough indicator and providing for our current population growth rate of 3.4% it would take us 97 years to lift our per capita income of $475 to South Africa’s $5800.

Using the same logic we will win the World Cup in 2120, using Argentina per capita GDP $7,725 as our benchmark.

Whereas a purely mathematical extrapolation, with oil we might catch up with South Africa’s current GDP much sooner or not for instance, the basic premise still stands: that you have to have attained a certain level welfare for your population before you can go around splurging on multi trillion shilling ego trips.

Ask Greece. Hosting the Olympics in 2004 set back the “poor” European economy by $11b and saddled it with stadiums it barely uses but has fork out at least $300m a year to maintain. This year Greece went bankrupt and threatened to bring down the European economy.

Published June 2010, New Vision

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