FIFA raised plenty of eyebrows in the final month of this year by awarding its 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to, respectively, Russia and Qatar.
The picks had scarcely been announced when soccer fans and officials alike began crying foul against soccer's world governing body. Jilted England made the most noise, with bid officials and British media outlets alleging corruption on the part of FIFA voters.
More casual observers questioned the ability of the first-time hosts to best stage soccer's showcase event, with Qatar drawing the most heat for, well, its heat: the average high temperature in June and July in the tiny Persian Gulf nation hits upwards of 41 C. Throw in the predominantly Muslim country's strict laws, including restrictions on the consumption of alcohol (no beer at the games?!) and Qatar does seem like an odd choice to host soccer's biggest party.
But while FIFA's dive into uncharted waters may have been surprising, it was hardly unique. In fact, 2010 may go down as the year in which the trend of holding big-time sporting events in unfamiliar — even perplexing — locales really took off.
Consider some of this year's major events, presented in chronological order:
The third-largest city in Canada practically qualifies as a world capital by the standards of the Winter Olympics, which over the past few decades have been held in relative hamlets like Lake Placid, Albertville and Lillehammer.
But staging ice- and snow-based competitions in a place where the average February high reaches 7 C can cause myriad problems. Like, say, fog and warm weather turning ski slopes into a slushy mess and wreaking havoc with the alpine schedule, or the greatest hockey player in history being pelted with rain as he holds the Olympic torch aloft in the back of a pickup truck.
Everything more or less worked out in the end, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could face worse trouble at the 2014 Sochi Games. The Russian seaside resort town has an average February high of 10 C.
South Africa World Cup
Visitors worried beforehand about the host country's high levels of poverty and violent crime, but exceptionally tight security prevented any major incidents and, by most accounts, South African organizers put on a fine show.
Still, there were problems. Pricey tickets were a tough sell among the locals, forcing FIFA to hand out free admissions in order to avoid unsightly empty seats for some of the non-marquee group stage games.
Now that the party's over, South Africa faces a much more difficult issue: what to do with the six new stadiums the country built for the World Cup — big contributors to the estimated $5.5 billion US the developing country reportedly spent on hosting the tournament. Even though the World Cup ended months ago, the bills keep rolling in. According to a Sports Illustrated report, Cape Town Stadium alone costs $6 million a year to maintain, even though large venues of its kind have little use in a land where the domestic soccer league typically attracts only a few hundred spectators a game.
Delhi Commonwealth Games
The October event was the one that may cause international organizers to think twice about which cities they choose for key competitions.
For a time, the unprecedented step of cancelling the Games seemed a viable option after a footbridge collapsed outside New Delhi's main stadium not long before the start of the event, adding to existing worries about safety, security and health in the Indian capital.
With large sections of the athletes village still in deplorable shape just days before the start of competition, a handful of athletes (including a couple of Canadian shooters) decided to pull out rather than take their chances with questionable building standards, risky security and, of course, the dreaded dengue fever.
But, despite the numerous fears, a mass pullout never materialized, and the Games went off about as well as expected. Crowds were sparse and the venues and accommodations weren't exactly world class, but everyone got home safe and sound outside of a few cases of "Delhi belly" — a byproduct of the area's less-stringent sanitation standards.
A situation like the Delhi near-disaster is unlikely to happen in either Russia or Qatar. Though it may be distributed unequally, wealth in those countries is vast enough (thanks largely to rich oil and gas reserves) that both should be able to stage first-class events to present themselves as emerging nations.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has already said his country will spend about $10 billion to build stadiums in 13 host cities, while Qatar's ruling Al Thani family has committed a dizzying $42.9 billion to infrastructure upgrades and another $4 billion to build nine stadiums and renovate three others. All venues, Qatar says, will be equipped with air conditioning.
In the end, FIFA's bets on Qatar and Russia will likely pay off. Sure, the governing body has risked alienating hardcore fans, many of whom salivated at the prospect of a World Cup in soccer-mad and tradition-rich England. And it would be nice if powerful organizations like FIFA and the IOC used the carrot of their marquee events to demand that prospective host countries address issues like poverty and human rights.
But haven't we seen this type of aggressive marking of new territory before? Call it the Gary Bettman approach: the idea that the best way to create more paying customers ("expand your brand," as they say) is to take your live events to places they've never been. Chances are you've already got the Londoner's pounds (or, in the NHL's case, the Winnipegger's dollars) so how about going after those riyals burning a hole in the Qatari's pocket?
We always wish sports weren't all about the money, but why are we still surprised when it turns out they are?