Connect to share and comment

Who's the better host: Johannesburg or Beijing?

Preparations for South Africa's World Cup pale next to China's for the Olympic Games.

A South African soccer fan at the re-opening of the showpiece Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg May 22, 2010. Soccer City, originally opened in 1989, was thoroughly overhauled for the World Cup. Three years of construction turned the stadium into a venue for 94,700. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With just two weeks before kickoff, the most obvious sign that the World Cup is coming to Johannesburg is the flood of street hawkers selling flags at intersections all over the city.

More telling is that Johannesburg’s hardened motorists are actually pulling over and buying. From battered pickup trucks to speeding Mercedes-Benzes, the roads are suddenly full of cars flying the six-colored South African flag out the back window or wrapped around side mirrors like a pair of rainbow earmuffs.

With just 14 days left until the soccer championships begin, it is a spirited, impromptu show of host country pride.

Read all of GlobalPost's World Cup 2010 coverage

The flags aside, most of Johannesburg — home to two stadiums that will hold the World Cup’s key games — looks the same as usual. The rough areas are just as shabby, the downtown area is still dingy and crumbling, the wealthy neighborhoods are still foreboding with their high walls and electric fences.

The potholes haven’t been fixed after summer rains, and some major roads are still under construction. The medians on the airport highway have been tidied up, and towering World Cup-related billboard advertisements have gone up, but this seems to be the extent of the pre-event facelift.

This World Cup is being called South Africa’s coming out party on the world stage. A similar line about China was overused in stories about the Beijing Olympics two years ago. But in Beijing, where I lived at the time of the Olympics, there was no mistaking that something big — very big — was underway.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

The Olympics brought a dizzying overhaul to Beijing under the government’s campaign to present a modern image to the world: Ancient neighborhoods were razed overnight. A mammoth new airport was built. The subway system was dramatically expanded and fast rail lines were installed to cities in nearby provinces that were hosting satellite Olympic events. And then there were the grandiose new sporting facilities.

No dissent was tolerated, and people who were in the way of the construction crews were forcibly moved if necessary. As the Games approached, Beijing was blanketed in welcoming signs and banners that hid any rundown buildings. The usually dusty city was so shiny and clean that it looked like the entire metropolis had been run through a carwash.

In fact, after seeing Beijing’s showpiece Olympic Games, all other sporting spectacles seem like mere high school track and field meets in comparison.

In fact, the month-long FIFA World Cup is an even bigger deal than the Olympics because it is the world’s most watched sporting event. Over the course of the month a cumulative 30 billion people are expected to watch the 64-game tournament, compared to the 4.7 billion television viewers of Beijing’s Games.

The Beijing beautification didn’t come cheap. The total cost of the Beijing Games was estimated at a staggering $40 billion, which makes the $5 billion that South Africa is spending on the World Cup look small in comparison — but even that is a huge sum for a developing country.

Beijing went over the top with its makeover, but South Africa, in particular the city of Johannesburg, could have used a greater transformation.