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10 reasons why sports mega events are increasingly hosted by authoritarian countries and not democratic western states

The most recent example of a democratic state that cancelled a bid for the Olympic Games came in November 2018 when Calgary voted against hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Stockholm is still bidding for those Games. It withdrew its bid for the 2022 Games and also the current bid is arguable. If Stockholm win the bid for the 2026 Games, they have promised that 100% of the budget will be privately financed, and not taxpayer funded.

At the moment, it is a real challenge for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to find host cities for future events.

At the same time, controversy surrounds the construction of stadiums for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup, with all a slew of reports of human rights violations.

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Why don’t democratic western countries want to organise sports mega events anymore? And why are non-democratic states increasingly willing to step in to this void?

1. The rise of developing countries

In the past, wealthy western countries hosted huge mega spectacles, as opposed to developing countries who didn’t have the political or economic power to organise them.

That is not the case anymore. There are new players in the bidding game and the emerging countries have gained both the political and economic power to be serious contenders to play host to the world.

2. Soft power

The rising countries want to demonstrate their power and ability to organise these bombastic events. This phenomenon is called soft power and it is the main reason for developing countries to organise sports mega events.

In other words, they use sport as a political weapon to re-brand their state’s image. Sports mega events are powerful tools to achieve political goals because these jamborees are incredibly popular.

Both the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup are broadcast to every single country in the world and almost half of the world’s population watch them.

3. Creating internal unity

It is also possible for countries to use sports events to unite nations. The 1995 Rugby World Cup played a key role in united a fractured South Africa and helped strengthen Nelson Mandela’s rainbow vision for his divided country.

In addition to using sport as a soft power tool externally, countries can use the events internally as well.

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Another example of this, is the Sochi 2014 Olympics, when President Putin wanted to show Russia’s comeback to its former glory to his fellow countrymen.

4. Sport and politics mix

In an idealistic world, we could say that sports and politics don’t mix. But they do.

Both the IOC and FIFA want to further spread their brand. The Olympic rings are one of the most well-known brands in the world.

5. New markets

The sponsors of the IOC and FIFA are multinational companies who want to enter these new markets. China and India are the most populated countries in the world – what other new markets could be more interesting than these to get involved in?

Is it right that the IOC and FIFA as non-profit organisations are so driven by money and their sponsor’s will? It is a question up for debate.

6. “Less democracy is sometimes better”

Is it easier for the governing bodies to organise events in non-democratic countries? Many democratic states have held referendums for the Olympics and their role in the decision-making has been even bigger recent years.

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That might be the reason why FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said in 2013: “I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.”

Both the IOC and FIFA have been part of several crises of trust and this new movement away from democracies doesn’t make them look any better than before.

7. Governing bodies as the beneficiaries

There was a time when the host cities really benefited from organising these events. Today, the biggest beneficiaries are the governing bodies.

Historically, the host cities used to collect sizeable revenue in TV rights, which helped the bottom line of the Games. Recently, the IOC has strong-armed the organisers.

In the 1990s, the IOC took 4% of television rights revenue, but at the Rio 2016 Games this was increased to 70%.

It seems that these events are examples of low risk and high-revenue money-making investments for the non-profit sporting governing bodies.

8. The legacy

A host city’s return on investment into an event is especially crucial for western democracies. What is the legacy? And who benefits from organising these events?

According to studies, London was hoping to get more people involved in sport through organising the Olympics in 2012.

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Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that organising such events has had any impact on the number of people who had previously shunned participation getting involved in sport.

9. Expensive global security problems

There is evidence that organising these mega events could harm the democracy of the host country. The Olympic Games used to be known as an event that makes a better world through sport.

After 9/11 however, a better definition would be an expensive global security problem that might create an increasingly anti-democratic legacy.

It is argued that post-9/11, international mega events produce authoritarian policies and practices that can have chronic impacts on individual rights and freedoms.

The 2004 Athens Olympics are an example of an event that has produced severe problems for Greek democracy.

10. Too expensive

Negative examples of over-investments in democratic host countries have decreased the level of interest in hosting mega events in western states.

People in Montreal had to pay costs for thirty years after the 1976 Games were finished. Athens 2004 Olympics are also an example of the Games that were followed by financial ruin.

The events are simply too expensive for western democracies to organise them.

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Will the western countries stay interested in mega events if they continue to be increasingly hosted by authoritarian countries? The money from the TV rights and sponsors still comes from the western democracies however, so what would happen if their level of interest dropped?

Sport is a part of society and it reflects changes in the global political economy. There has been a natural shift towards emerging states after they have gained the economic and political power to organise mega sports events. Because of their popularity, sports mega events are good platforms to improve a state’s image.

Organising mega events in non-democratic states might lead to a scenario where western countries will not be interested in these events, which could force the umbrella organisations to bring the events back to western countries.

It will be interesting to see if Agenda 2020, the IOC’s strategic road map for the future Games, could make it easier for western democracies to organise the upcoming Olympic Games.

At the moment, hosting mega events is filled with controversy, major concerns, and even opposition in parts of the western democratic world.

Featured photograph/Flickr/ D@LY3D

Emilia Ottela
Emilia is a London based passionate sports enthusiast. Originally from Finland, she is a former elite athlete turned to a sport management professional. She has a strong track record in financial management with a background both in consulting and as the CFO of the Finnish Golf Union. Her experience also includes IT and HR management, and she is a MSc (Accounting) degree holder from Aalto University, Finland. Currently she is widening her skillset and studying towards MA degree in International Sports Journalism at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. Emilia would like to work for an international sports organisation in order to combine her business and communication skills. During her studies, she plans to deepen her knowledge in international sports communication and multimedia production.
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