Development, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

12 May 2017

Developing countries like the Solomon Islands would do well to think carefully about the supposed benefits of hosting major sporting events, Simon Darnell writes.

In March of 2017, the Solomon Islands Parliament passed a legal framework enabling the country to host the 2023 Pacific Games. Speaking to the legislation, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Manasseh Maelanga stated that the hosting of the Pacific Games would support the goals of ‘economic development and nation-building.’

In this way, Maelanga situated the Solomon Islands’ strategy within the recent trend whereby peripheral and emerging countries, particularly in the global South, pursue the hosting of major sports events as part of their development strategies and policies. The Solomon Islands’ efforts suggest that even relatively small events like the Pacific Games, while clearly on a different scale from sports mega-events like the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, are now connected to development strategies and policies.

So, will such a strategy work? On the one hand, for a country like the Solomon Islands hosting an event like the Pacific Games, some benefits are likely to accrue. For example, hosting can improve a nation’s international prestige, while securing its place within the global community. In this sense, hosting yields some positive effects in terms of soft power; if a nation cannot compete economically or militarily, building a reputation through sport often offers an attractive alternative.

Hosting events also has benefits in terms of infrastructure. It is common for government funding to ‘open up’ after a Games have been awarded, in order to build new facilities – both sporting and otherwise – and to facilitate tourism. In turn, hosting events can have a positive impact on a nation’s elite sport system, especially as the host country channels resources towards its athletes to ensure they perform well at home and avoid embarrassment.

On the other hand, however, recent forays into hosting by emerging countries suggest the need for caution regarding the efficacy of such strategies. Several issues are worthy of critical reflection. First is the issue of the cost overruns that almost always accompany the hosting of major sports events, as well as the opportunity costs associated with such spending. It is simply a fact that the hosting of major sports events almost never come in on budget, leaving host cities and/or countries scrambling to find extra money. This is particularly the case given that it is nearly impossible to abandon a commitment to hosting a Games once planning and construction have begun.

More on this: Gold and glory, or a costly legacy?

In turn, when compared to more economically stable countries, developing or emerging nations are often in a more precarious position to deal with such challenges, particularly if there are other social services that are also in need of funding.

Second, and relatedly, is the question of inequality. While hosting of events does often lead to investment and growth, this economic activity usually takes place primarily within the private sector, as contractors and corporate sponsors often drive the Games. In this way, hosting of sports events can facilitate the transfer of public funding into private hands, which likely exacerbates inequality rather than challenging it.

Third is the issue of environmental and social impacts. In the face of climate change and environmental degradation, building sports facilities for short-term use and hosting international tourism events that rely on cheap fossil fuels may be a dubious strategy at best. Of course, advocates of hosting point to the legacies that such events can inspire, arguing that new sports facilities and sporting heroes will lead to a nation of sports participation, with positive impacts in terms of health and wellness.

On the contrary, if the goal is to create a sporting nation, the hosting of sports events is not a particularly good policy. Indeed, research into sport policy suggests that the ‘demonstration’ effect of hosting does little to encourage sustained sport participation among the host country’s population. This is because even if citizens feel inspired by watching their nation’s athletes, this has little direct impact on the availability of facilities or of qualified coaches that can introduce people to sport.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that the determining factor with regards to broad-based sport participation is social equality, rather than sport events and their inspirational effects. In other words, physically active populations tend to be ones that are more equal, not more inspired.

Overall, then, while it continues to make some sense within the logic and structures of competitive capitalism and globalisation for peripheral or emerging countries to pursue the hosting of major games as a development strategy, the track record of such pursuits suggests that countries might want to think twice about whether such strategies are the best use of limited resources.

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