Who's the better host: Johannesburg or Beijing?

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.

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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.

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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.

The country has built some impressive stadiums that will create a positive impression on television viewers, notably the African cooking pot-shaped Soccer City stadium in Soweto, and the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, which offers stunning views of the Indian Ocean from its skyline cable car.

Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, the main gateway to the country, has been refurbished and expanded, and a soon-to-open high-speed rail link, the Gautrain, will whisk arriving passengers from the airport to the Sandton area of Johannesburg. Roads to stadiums have been fixed up and a new rapid bus network put in place to help transport visitors.

But public transport infrastructure for the most part remains a confusing mess. Transportation experts have warned that soccer fans who zipped around Germany’s efficient train network to attend World Cup matches four years ago will likely find travelling in South Africa to be a frustrating experience.

Crumbling basic infrastructure is a major problem. South Africa faces a continuing electricity shortage, and many areas of Johannesburg have had power outages in the past month despite reassurances that there will be enough power during the World Cup. South Africa has arranged to buy power if necessary during the soccer championships from neighboring countries — even from troubled Zimbabwe, which has power outages of its own.

At the gleaming new airport terminal in Johannesburg, meanwhile, the authorities cannot stop the rampant baggage theft, with an apparently uncrackable crime syndicate responsible for the perennial problem. Some foreign visitors will find their welcome to South Africa tempered by the unpleasant discovery that their luggage has been pilfered.

Unlike in authoritarian China, South Africa’s democratic government must answer to its citizens, including its powerful unions. Strikes plagued the construction of stadiums and expansion of public transit, and this week a strike by rail workers has stranded 2 million commuters. Rail networks are expected to be important in helping World Cup visitors travel between matches.

South Africa desperately wants foreign soccer fans to come to its World Cup, but arrival numbers look to be below expectations due primarily to the cost of travel, while some fans have been put off by the country’s notoriously high crime rate. As few as 220,000 foreign tourists are expected to visit South Africa for the World Cup, down from earlier estimates of 500,000.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, became increasingly fearful of having foreigners around as the Olympics approached — non-Chinese citizens are more difficult to control. So the government made it tougher than usual to get a visa to China during the Olympic period, and tourist numbers to Beijing actually dropped.

In Beijing, in addition to limiting the number of foreigners who might have protested or caused a scene, the migrant workers who built the Olympic facilities were sent home to the countryside, along with beggars, street snack vendors, bicycle cart-riding recycling collectors and the rest of the riffraff that give the city its character. Sidewalks in Beijing were dotted with armband-wearing volunteer snitches, making sure that no one said boo.

South Africa has not entirely foresworn such a strategy. Johannesburg police are busy rounding up prostitutes and beggars, and hassling Zimbabwean migrants, including some of the craft vendors that sell their handmade beaded wares streetside.

But so far the clean-up campaign hasn’t affected the colorful flag hawkers crowding Johannesburg’s traffic lights.

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to clarify the number of viewers expected for the World Cup.