The politics of bread and circuses is obsolete.
It’s a long time since governments have been able to sports-wash their way out of trouble. One measure of this shift is the fall in demand for hosting summer Olympic Games and FIFA World Cups. Since 2004, when 11 cities bid for the summer Olympics, the decline has been steady: 10 cities wanted the games in 2008, nine in 2012, seven in 2016, six in 2020, five in 2024, and for the 2028 and 2032 Olympics, Los Angeles and Brisbane were selected unopposed, with a change to the bid process papering over the diminishing interest.
The economic benefits of bread and circuses have long been questionable, but so now is the political payoff. Olympics fever and public expenditure on sport did not save the British Labour government in the run-up to the London Games, and the populations of Rio (2016) and Tokyo (2020) were noticeably hunkered down just trying to get through the Games, the latter Olympics so unpopular that they were inconspicuous in the COVID-stricken host city.
Political aggrandisement at both Games was thin on the ground. FIFA World Cup bids have followed a similar trajectory. For 2026, three countries – Canada, Mexico and the United States – pooled resources to win hosting rights against one other bidder, Morocco. The claim that these global sporting events brought unalloyed political prestige to host governments seems quaintly out of date, other than in the medieval kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which somehow believes its reputation will be cleansed by the money it pours into motor racing, football and golf.
Perhaps governments lost interest when they stopped getting the credit. During Brisbane’s winning campaign for the 2032 Olympics, John Coates’ public rebuke to Annastacia Palaszczuk signified a kind of high-table rank-pulling, the Olympics supremo reminding the Queensland premier who really secured the Games for Brisbane.
In Sydney, the chief of the National Rugby League, Peter V’Landys, has confronted Perrottet with claims that the government is reneging on a pre-existing agreement to fund the refurbishment of suburban Sydney grounds. It’s V’Landys’ job to fight his corner, but tactically it might be a misstep, for if he is seen as the saviour of these projects against the defiance of a reluctant premier, what political gain is there for the premier in going along with it?
V’Landys seemed to forget the golden rule: to allow the politicians to think that they are the ones in charge. Governments are fighting on so many other fronts, and electorates are too well informed to be taken in by either the bread or the circus. It might have been disingenuous for Perrottet to posit an either/or – to imply that he had to choose flood victims over footy fans – but this premier could choose a thousand other spending priorities and as many other issues on which he was being battered. Here was his chance for a rare win.
He could respond to an electorate that is increasingly sophisticated and sceptical, and that has grown out of being diverted by bread and circuses. It only took 2000 years, but we got there.
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