PtG Article 15.11.2011

Mega sports events are coming back to Western countries - temporarily

This weekend signalled a temporary halt in the growing trend to move the world's largest sports events away from Western countries when London beat Doha to host the World Athletics Championships in 2017, and the Gold Coast in Australia was preferred as host for the Commonwealth Games in 2018 over Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

An analysis conducted by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies earlier this year showed that only three out of a combined total of 13 Olympic Games and world championship tournaments in football, athletics and swimming would be held in Western countries* after 2010.

This weekend's decisions to give London the World Athletics Championship in 2017 and Australia the Commonwealth Games in 2018 do not on their own indicate a general return of sport mega-events to Western countries, but each case provides an insight into the economic dynamics that can make it difficult for non-Western countries to host sport mega-events. 

Now or never for European bids

In terms of the World Athletics Championship, London was up against Doha, the capital of Qatar. Doha is busy building up a position as host for global sports events and was recently awarded the rights to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

However, in the run-up to the vote, Ed Warner, chairman of UK Athletics, publicly warned against "the chase of the short-term sugar rush of virgin territory". He told The Guardian that if Doha was chosen, the International Athletics Associations Federation (IAAF) would risk alienating the sport's traditional fan base and diminishing its appeal to sponsors and broadcasters.

"It's almost now or never for western European bids for the World Championships. If this does not go to London a number of other cities in Western Europe that might have contemplated bidding for the championships I think will look at it and say 'What do I have to do to win? Is it impossible?'" he said.

"You take the championships away from that core audience for too long and broadcasters lose interest and sponsors take their toys away and play elsewhere."

Whether it was this argument that swayed the IAAF board to give the world championships to London is impossible to tell but the vote was 16 to 10 in favour of the British bid.

Fishing town versus tourism hub

The economic considerations for delegates at the Commonwealth Games Federation were slightly different. Here, the Gold Coast, a regional tourism hub already rife with transport infrastructure and sports facilities, was up against Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka Guardian describes Hambantota as no more than a fishing town - seriously lacking in basic infra-structure even to hold a less significant national sporting event for a few thousands of spectators.

According to the Australian broadcaster, ABC, the Commonwealth Games Federation pointed out in its own assessment of the two bids that the big difference was risk. The Gold Coast was labelled low risk, Hambantota - medium to high. 

One of the reasons is that the Gold Coast already has 80 per cent of venues built and operating. Capital expenditure would be a relatively modest $860 million, with almost half spent on a games village. By contrast Hambantota is virtually a greenfield site, with the report describing the overall plan as an ambitious one. The construction bill is estimated at $1.65 billion; almost double that of the Gold Coast's.

The hosting of the 2018 Commonwealth Games was awarded to the Gold Coast with 43 votes against 27. Immediately afterwards the Hambantota Committee sent out a press release that promised that Sri Lanka will continue the large-scale investment set out in the bid.

The question is whether this promise is realistic. Only a week ago, the cricket board in Sri Lanka asked the country's military to take over and maintain multi-million dollar test venues that were set up for this year's World Cup in cricket. 

According to the news agency AFP, Sri Lanka Cricket has sought government grants and a soft loan to meet part of the $69 million it spent on co-hosting the 2011 World Cup. Still, the cricket board is unable to afford the maintenance costs of the three stadiums.

* Western countries were defined as EU/EFTA countries, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Read also the analyses on mega events conducted by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies earlier this year: Western countries are losing the race for major sporting events