PtG Article 28.11.2017

Human rights, soft power and the legacy of mega-events

Will the legacies of major sporting events always be cost overruns, abandoned venues, and human rights clampdowns?

Why are fewer cities bidding to host the biggest sporting events these days? Is it because they are realising that the benefits are overstated and massive cost overruns are unavoidable? Wladimir Andreff, Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris, thinks so. Los Angeles and Paris, he pointed out, were the only candidates for the 2024 and 2028 Olympics after Budapest, Hamburg and Rome all pulled out.

In any auction where the value of the asset is uncertain, Andreff said, the party that overestimates its value to the greatest extent will be the winner. In the past, he said the bidding model for events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games has favoured the organisers and placed bidding cities at a disadvantage. In the Olympic bidding process, for example, the IOC has traditionally defined the ideal host as the city offering the best sporting venues and accompanying infrastructure.

As all candidate cities’ objective is to secure the games, they are tempted to ‘overbid’ by promising the best, state-of –the art stadiums and extensive supporting infrastructure. 

Cities disadvantaged

In recent years, the bidding process for mega-events has been amended, with both the IOC and FIFA awarding hosting rights to two cities or nations simultaneously and taking into account a broader range of success criteria.

However, Andreff said, the process could be improved further by downsizing the bidding criteria to allow for less distinction between brand new and older facilities. Winning bids, he said, could be rotated across continents or regions, as is the general rule with the World Cup today. Host cities could be chosen through a lottery, or competitions could be located in multiple nations. In the long term, Andreff said, technological progress could allow sports facilities to be disassembled and rebuilt at different locations. A certain method of avoiding the “winner’s curse”, he said, would be to require sport’s governing bodies to foot the entire bill for the event.

Many construction projects experience cost overruns, Trondheim Business School Associate Professor Harry Arne Solberg pointed out, but research has shown that sporting mega-events perform worse than others. Unlike, say the construction of a bridge or a dam, sports events have a fixed deadline. This means that regardless of external factors, construction must remain on schedule, with the national government – and ultimately taxpayers - paying for any increase in costs.

Fixed deadlines

“Most assurances about mega-events have now been debunked,” Pacific University Lecturer Jules Boykoff told Play the Game 2017 in a presentation on protests and activism surrounding mega-events.

Citizens, he said, often experience severe restrictions on their right to protest during such events despite legitimate concerns that they are funded at the expense of, for example, public health and social welfare. Boykoff referred to “greenwashing” – or sponsors paying lip service to environmental concerns – at mega-events, as well as forced evictions and the “militarisation of the public sphere”.

Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, told Play the Game 2017 that human rights abuses often increase as global mega-events grow in scale. Among these abuses, she said, are a disregard for the rights of minorities, the abuse of migrant workers and the repression of journalists and demonstrators. China, she pointed out, had pledged to implement reforms before being awarded the Olympic games, but following the award of the 2008 Games to Beijing its human rights record worsened. However, a lack of respect for human rights before, during and after the 2008 Olympics did not prevent the IOC from awarding the Asian nation the 2022 Winter Games.

“Research has shown that if you award a mega-event to an authoritative regime you will create human rights abuses,” she said. “We must recognise that nations want the games to gain soft power.”

However, she also recognised that significant reforms have been made by the IOC and FIFA through their adoption of the UN’s guiding principles on human rights. Both organisations, she stressed, will now have to “turn their paperwork into meaningful action”, especially with a number of mega-events coming up in authoritarian countries.

Soft power

Federico Addiechi, FIFA’s Head of Sustainability and Diversity, followed Minky Worden’s address by pointing out that many human rights reforms have already been implemented by FIFA – and more are planned. FIFA has already integrated a specific article on human rights into its statute book, he pointed out, and is one of the few sports organisations that has a specific human rights policy.

“We are ahead of the game when it comes to our human rights processes,” he said. “This is not to say that all is well, and we continue to find issues, but the system allows us to identify those issues and address them. It is important that people keep assessing our work critically and hold us to account.”

Former international footballer, Brazilian Rai Oliveira, told Play the Game 2017 that the legacy of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics included abandoned venues, a reduction in public resources for sport, and a management crisis in Brazil’s Olympic Committee. However, he added that it had also given fresh impetus to Athletes for Brazil, a non-profit organisation which he presides over, that brings together athletes and ex-athletes of different generations to further social advancement through sports.

Achievements to date, he said, include the formation of strong partnerships with the private sector, the introduction of new rules on sports entities’ access to public funding, and reforms to the structure and presidential terms of national sporting bodies.

In more than 40 sessions, over 200 speakers will present their thoughts and opinions on a wide range of the most topical questions in world sport during the tenth Play the Game conference, taking place in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 26-30 November 2017.Read more about Play the Game 2017