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All countries deserve a sporting chance

Winning the right to stage a major international sporting event like the Olympic Games or the World Cup is a massive boost to any country. As we saw in Sydney, these events help put cities on the map and generate a huge spin off boost to national economies.

With so much at stake, one would hope that the selection of cities to host such events would be transparently fair. Sadly, judging from evidence put last week to the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport select committee, this does not appear to be the case.

The power to choose the location of these events rests, of course, with faceless bureaucrats sitting on the committees of organisations like world football body FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.

These individuals wield an enormous amount of economic power. They can boost or deflate the economies of countries affected by their choices and can kick-start or kill off spending on new stadia and supporting infrastructure.

But as members of international bodies, they are subject to few of the checks and balances which apply to civil servants and national politicians. As a result, they can make their weighty decisions with almost complete impunity and, some would argue, with little regard to practicality or logic.

Take last year's decision by FIFA to give Germany the right to stage the 2006 World Cup, ahead of South Africa and England.

Last week, the select committee heard that the way in which FIFA reached its decision raised serious questions about the credibility of its selection process.

Evidence presented by the English Football Association shows a catalogue of questionable decisions which, when put together, helped prevent England from staging the event.

In particular FIFA declared that English stadia were equal to those of South Africa and inferior to those of Germany, despite their compliance with FIFA regulations. No account appeared to have been taken of the fact that England's stadia - with the exception of the much delayed new Wembley - were all built.

On the other hand, several in South Africa and Germany were still on the drawing board.

'Given the formidable demands of large stadia building programmes (viz Wembley) and the risk of financial and time overshooting, FIFA was wrong and unfair to prefer the hypothetical to the real, ' said the FA's evidence to the committee Engineers who have been on the losing side in a high profile bid battle will sympathise with the FA. But public bodies can usually be held to account for their decisions, especially if they are suspected of being unfair or of failing to get the best value for money.

Decisions made by organisations like FIFA can and do have a major impact, yet a lack of public accountability means there is little scope for challenging their choices.

It is hard to say whether one country deserves to hold a major sporting event more than another unless selection criteria are fully transparent. Perhaps it is time to establish an independent international watchdog to scrutinise these decision making processes and make public its findings. Only then will we know whether the playing field is truly level.

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