Government and governance, Trade and industry, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

14 October 2016

Tokyo recently announced that the cost of its upcoming Olympic Games had blown out to four times the original estimate. John Horne looks at whether cities going for gold in hosting sports mega-events comes at a price worth paying.

An ‘East Asian Era’ is about to unfold in the hosting of the Winter and Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games as Pyeongchang (South Korea), Tokyo (Japan), and Beijing (China) prepare to act as hosts for the next three between 2018 and 2022. Strictly speaking, it is not nation-states that host an Olympics, but a city. However since an Olympic bid from a city without the support of the nation-state would not be successful the two are closely connected. Yet at the same time the rising costs of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, announced by an expert panel late last month, and Rome’s city council’s vote against supporting a bid for the 2024 Games, suggest that disenchantment with sports mega-events that cost a lot to put on but fail to deliver on the promises of legacies which are used to win public support for bids, appears to be growing.

This disenchantment is not news to those of us – academics, researchers, and journalists – who have been arguing for some time that there are difficulties with the hosting of mega-events as they are currently organised. Certainly, in many democratic nations, the attraction is waning. The allure of hosting the Olympics started to lose its shine a decade ago, partly but not wholly, due to the credit crunch and recession of the mid to late 2000s. For the 20 years before that, the attractiveness of, and expansion in, hosting the Olympics and other sports events had been underpinned by three social developments: technological, economic, and political.

First, sports mega-events now have a global audience as a result of technological innovation in mass communication, especially the development of satellite television. The growth of social media and the Internet have not (yet) dislodged TV as the main way of consuming the Olympics, which makes broadcasting a valuable source of revenue for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Second, the related formation of a sport-media-business alliance transformed sports mega-events and professional sport generally in the late 20th century. The idea of packaging, via the tri-partite model of sponsorship rights, exclusive broadcasting rights and merchandising, attracted sponsors of the Olympics through the association with sports and the vast global audience exposure that the events achieve.

Third, interest in hosting sports mega-events grew as they became seen as valuable promotional opportunities for cities and regions. The idea was that by putting the host city up in lights in front of both a broader domestic and global audience, such events could bring more direct investment and more tourists (along with the revenue they generate).

More on this: Football and China’s World Cup goal

Cast over these factors is the dream-like quality of the Olympics that appears to grip those boosters and promoters who are alerted to the potential opportunities for place promotion on a global stage for those locations that host sports spectaculars. By 2020 only 23 different cities will have hosted the 32 Summer Olympic Games that have occurred since 1896. Leading the field are London with three and Athens, Los Angeles, Paris and Tokyo with two. Hence in an era when ‘world class city’ status has been seen as a vital asset in attracting and often redirecting flows of capital, investment, and people, the fame and celebrity thought to accompany being one of a small number of Olympic host cities remains a heady brew.

Yet, if, as Andrew Zimbalist writes, citizens had been “settling for circuses and the promise of bread”, increasingly it would appear that the populations of many cities not only need bread, but they also want an end to corrupt practices. Assisted by human rights and other NGOs, activists and academic analysis, these populations are influencing and in some cases voting to stop the circus before it arrives into town.

During a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, I spoke with Carlos Vainer – Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He has been a major contributor to debates about the legacies of hosting mega-events in Rio for the past ten years. To analyse Rio and mega-events he uses the concept of ‘city of exception’; in which new rules of planning and conceiving of the city have been introduced as a result of using mega-events as an urban development strategy. He suggested that Rio 2016 was going to deliver ‘Un–Legacies’, negative examples of how not to deliver an Olympic and Paralympic Games. It will be interesting to see if this view is one that features in future accounts reflecting back on Rio 2016.

Before the start of Rio 2016 critics organised a week-long series of events called ‘The Exclusion Games’. Many of the organisers of these events had been involved in ‘Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics’ activities throughout nearly a decade of mega-event hosting that has impacted Rio. They have sought to highlight the high cost of mega-events for the city and at the same time demonstrate that alternative developments are possible. Their conclusions are based on research, writing, and popular engagement with communities affected by displacement, negative environmental impacts, and irregularities in the completion of the construction and transportation.

Unlike any other global event, the Games offer the opportunity for an enormous sporting and cultural celebration. They bring the nations of the world together to compete in sports under commonly agreed rules and regulations. And as far as television spectacles go, there is little that can rival the Games. But they take place within fractured social structures and amid enormous inequalities that persist and develop over time. The Games themselves have evolved since 1896 but perhaps now the time has come for the Games to change more fundamentally.

Before Pyeongchang hosts the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2018 the IOC must select one of three possible host cities for 2024: Los Angeles (after Boston withdrew), Paris or Budapest. Arguably these three cities are still in the race because the respective booster coalitions of politicians and businesses in each city either feel one or a combination of the following: the city is ready to host (almost permanently in the case of LA), it is their turn (Paris, after being favourite to win the right to host the 2012 Games), or that hosting the Olympic spectacle would offer the city and nation a very distinctive opportunity for place promotion (Budapest). Whether their respective populations are as supportive is another question entirely.

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Horne, John. 2016. "Gold And Glory, Or A Costly Legacy? - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.