One of the few things that growing up in Monaghan fails to instill in a person, sadly, is any great affinity for boats, or the sea. My own experience on the Ocean extends no further than once having been permitted by my wife to captain a pedal boat on an overseas holiday. It ended, alas, in disaster, and thus, she informs me, my career as a seafarer is at an end, at least while she has any say in the matter.
The Americas Cup, then, is not something that especially excites. Yachting is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a sport for the idle rich – an activity reserved for chaps from Dalkey for whom the highlight of the summer is the Schull Regatta. Or Reh-gaaaaaaaaah-ta, to use the proper pronounciation. The prospect of the state expending €150m to host the world cup for rich people, as a friend describes it, is therefore not especially popular.
But host it we should.
There is a terrible tendency in the Irish psyche to make everything about money. You see it in this debate between former TD Noel Rock, and his party colleague, Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer, who wants to host the Americas Cup, but has to resort to makey-uppy numbers to justify it:
Disagree profoundly with respect. I’ve never been on a yacht but the net economic benefit and the promotional value to our tourism & hospitality industry would be huge. We must recognise the value it would bring
— Senator Jerry Buttimer (@jerrybuttimer) September 15, 2021
In that discussion, Rock is clearly right. There is precious little evidence that hosting the boat race would deliver any long term benefit to the country at all. A short term economic boost to Cork? Sure. But long term dividends, economically? Hardly.
Indeed, very few of these events ever do. The Olympics cost billions to stage. Who, today, is visiting London because of the 2012 games, or Sydney because of the 2000 games? Does anybody go on holiday to South Africa to see the birthplace of the Vuvuzuela, after the 2010 World Cup? Can any of you even remember where the last Winter Olympics were held?
No, if you want to justify hosting international sporting events, you’ve got to do better than “money”.
Singapore is a country with a smaller GDP than Ireland, and a slightly larger population. Per capita, they are poorer than we are. Yet, every single year since the early 2000s, with the exception of the Covid pandemic, Singapore has hosted a Formula One Grand Prix on the streets of its capital. Monaco, a tiny statelet, has done the same since the 1950s. These events cost tens of millions to stage. The London Olympics cost 9.3 billion pounds. Did they make a profit? Absolutely not.
What those events do, though, is add something more valuable than money: They instill a collective sense of national pride and prestige. No Londoner who lived through it will forget their Olympics. It was a moment for their city to shine on a global stage, and for Londoners to feel pride and a sense of unity. The same is true of the car races in Singapore and Monaco.
Being a country is about much more than plusses and minuses on the national balance sheet. What are we for, exactly? What do we want to achieve? What do we want to be known for? What use is independence, and nationhood, and taking our place amongst the countries of the world if we are not willing to say to the world “come here and look at what we have, and have built?”
The Americas Cup is not the World Cup. It is not a Formula One race, or an Olympics. The cost, at €150m, is one of those things that sounds huge, but in the context of the country’s budget, is a drop in the Ocean. It is about the cost, for comparison of one week of Lockdown. We’ve managed to spend that every week for almost a year. We can’t spend it on one cultural event that might make people feel a bit better about their country?
And if you really care about investment and money, and want that sort of thing front and centre, consider this: International events force Governments to invest in infrastructure. The Olympic Games in London were a spark for a major investment in regenerating East London. The races in Singapore and Monaco and Azerbaijan compel those Governments to clean up their cities, and make them look pristine. They bring people, and communities, together in a common effort.
If we have the chance to host international sporting events, we should be grateful. When we hosted the Eurovision Song Contest all those years in a row, it was because our music was being recognised for its greatness. The people who want to bring the boat race here want to bring it because they recognise how great our little country is.
We should be welcoming them with open arms. Not counting pennies, in the context of our national budget.