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Column: 'Mega events'... the good, the bad, and the downright ugly

Multibillion euro sporting events capture world attention and bring large scale benefits to a country or city – but there’s also a darker side to the festivities, writes Feargus Dunne.

Feargus Dunne

THE RECENT HIGHLIGHTING by media outlets of the apparent exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar, as that country develops its infrastructure in advance of the soccer World Cup in 2022, again places the spotlight on mega-sporting events and their benefits and costs for a host country and the world at large.

The term “mega-event” is not precisely defined, but sporting mega-events are recognised as events which capture world attention and bring large scale benefits to a country or city. This usually materialises through saturation media coverage from across the world, place marketing, national re-positioning, urban regeneration and improved infrastructure, economic development, increased sport participation and a general boost to the people of a city or country. This general boost, often labelled civic boosterism or psychic income, is perhaps the key legacy of mega-events.

It is highly doubtful that the investment of €10 billion or more in events that usually last for a month or less, can be justified only in terms of measurable economic impact, and indeed it is unlikely that a study of such benefits would be ever be conducted, so great would the scale of research required, and period of analysis be.

The ‘feel good’ factor

Instead, a key (albeit intangible) benefit is that ‘feel good’ factor of happiness, joy, identity and people viewing their community and country in a positive light. Think Ireland around the time of Italia ‘90 or to a lesser extent Katie Taylor’s gold medal last year, or London throughout the Olympics in 2012. Anecdotal reports of strangers discussing Mo Farrah’s prospects on the morning tube commute, daily street parties, and huge crowds lining the streets of provincial towns to welcome home successful athletes were commonplace during last summer’s Olympics.

London 2012 recruited 70,000 volunteers for the games, many with no volunteering experience, and selected candidates from a range of backgrounds in order to try best reflect London’s ethnic diversity. This was a successful programme, with the volunteers branded as ‘Games Makers’, taking their positive experiences back to their local communities. Opening ceremonies can serve as a display of power, or in the case of London 2012’s showstopper from filmmaker Danny Boyle, incorporate a large cultural-artistic element, that is an interpretation of a host country’s culture.

During times of recession, increased urbanisation and polarisation of communities, this ‘feel good’ factor is important, not least to governments and individual politicians. A mayor of London will likely never again receive the amount of soft focus media coverage that Boris Johnson banked in the lead up to and during the 2012 London Olympics.

Potential negatives to mega-events

However, there are also many potential negatives to mega-events. Taxpayers in Montreal, Canada, were still paying for the overspend on the 1976 Olympic Games 30 years later. There is often vast wastage of public monies on non-essential vanity projects, employment created is short term, and Olympic Games can indirectly cause an increase in the cost of living for local residents as the area moves up-market.

The Olympics in Sydney 2000 were generally perceived positively, in acting as an image-maker for Sydney as a modern ‘world city’ rather than a colonial outpost, helping to heal cultural differences, and showcasing Australia as a beautiful, multi-cultural country with a pristine environment. However, less highlighted were the widespread dilution of planning laws in the area of Sydney where the games were held. Also, local media was quietly subverted. With sport occupying an important role in Australian nationalism, in the absence of a defining national war, any legitimate criticism of the games was labelled as un-Australian.

Greece spent €13 billion to bring the Olympics back to their ancient home in 2004, but the legacy of the Athens games is best summed up by the many abandoned derelict venues such as swimming pools, beach volleyball stadiums and canoe slalom courses. The Olympics were not the main cause of the Greek economic collapse, but their legacy serve as a visual symbol of the over-borrowing and overspending which has crippled the country.

While tourism to a country or city may benefit in the long term from the exposure an event generates, there is evidence that during a mega-event the number of tourists actually drops as potential visitors are put off by suggestions of rip-off flight and hotel prices, and too many… tourists!

‘Global political players’

A further issue around mega-events is that they are often accused of attracting increased protitution, trafficking, and illegal drug use. The Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, recently described the Super Bowl as “the single largest human trafficking incident in the US”.

While claims have been made about huge movement of sex workers into countries such as Germany and South Africa for the World Cups of 2006 and 2010, it is very difficult to quantify these numbers. The sheer scale of mega-events, the volume of tourists and the demands they place on policing for example, often mean that traffickers and their victims are more difficult to identify.

For future mega-event hosts however, the game has moved on considerably. Countries such as Brazil, which is hosting both the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games; Russia which is hosting the 2018 Football World Cup; and Qatar which is hosting the 2022 Football World Cup, are all seeking to become bigger global political and economic powers and are using mega-events to help achieve this aim.

This often suits organisations such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, in that they now see themselves as far more than mere sporting bodies and instead, global political players, with their presidents acting as something akin to the head of state of a large country.

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This is, ironically, one of the reasons England was unsuccessful with its bid for the 2018 World Cup. England had the infrastructure, football history and fan base to ensure a successful and relatively cost-effective tournament, but this did not fit with the FIFA vision of spreading the message of the so called ‘beautiful game’ around to more diverse parts of the world (often to countries which cannot afford it). The highlighting by sections of the English media of FIFA members’ corrupt practices was also probably not helpful.

Qatar is approximately the size of Cork and Kerry combined, and has a population of under 2 million, approximately the same as Northern Ireland. Less than one quarter of the population are citizens, but Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world.

Qatar’s successful bid to host the World Cup has proven highly contentious since it was successful in 2010. Apart from matters such as Qatar’s demographics, lack of stadiums and 50° Celsius heat in June, when the World Cup is traditionally held, an altogether darker issue is that of Qatar’s apparent treatment of migrants from countries such as Nepal, India and Pakistan who are building the infrastructure. FIFA have said they will investigate, but these practices have been clearly evident in Qatar and neighbouring Middle Eastern countries for many years.

Mega-events cost a lot of money to stage. London 2012 is estimated to have cost around £9 billion, from an original estimate of £2.4 billion. For that they got an iconic event, huge media exposure, a redeveloped East End of London, sporting memories that will endure, and they will hope, increased volunteerism and sport participation.

A cynic might suggest, of course, that with Ireland’s bank guarantee – having cost around €64 billion –we could have hosted seven Olympic Games.

Feargus Dunne is a lecturer in tourism and events management at Institute of Technology, Tralee. He has worked with numerous Irish festivals and events in an advisory capacity. Follow him on Twitter @feargusd or LinkedIn.

Read: Football bosses told to worry about Qatar workers – and not just players

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