Written by Dr Haydn Davies, Birmingham City University
The World Cup, Wimbledon, the Tour de France and the Commonwealth Games. This year has been a rich one indeed in terms of sporting spectacle. But increasingly we hear questions asked about the legacy of major sporting events in terms of their effect on the environment and the extent to which they contribute to social justice in the locations where they are held. As is usual with such events, politicians are keen to highlight the potential benefits – economic, social and cultural as well as sporting – which will accrue to local populations (see here for Alex Salmond’s and David Cameron’s views on the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow). But just how often are the promised legacies of major sporting events actually realised?
Certainly FIFA were alive to the environmental and economic implications of the recent World Cup in Brazil. Prior to the event, FIFA commissioned a report from Ernst and Young Terco Sustainable Brazil: Social and Economic Impacts of the 2014 World Cup, in which the possible benefits of the event to the people of Brazil were assessed. On p.18 of the report the importance of socio-environmental factors in the build-up, delivery and legacy phases of the World Cup was emphasized:
The socio-environmental aspect permeates all of its activities. For example, in directly performing or subcontracting services, it is important to identify criteria that ensure workers’ health and safety, working conditions, payment of rights and benefits, quality of life, strengthened learning systems as well as post-event employment and sustainability.
However, in terms of the legacy effects the report carried a health warning on p.5
As the World Cup is a one-time event, most of its systematic impacts will not be permanent.
In fact, once the investments have been concluded and the World Cup has taken place, the positive impacts will remain based on the stakeholders’ ability to benefit from the event’s opportunities and legacies.
This is a candid acknowledgement that the organizers and governing bodies of such events are not in the business of supervising legacies once their event has concluded. It remains to be seen whether this is the case in Brazil. However, Ernst & Young Terco’s caution appears to be borne out by several studies the legacies of previous major sporting events – and in particular the legacy of the Olympic Games, also to go next to Brazil. In general it seems that the social justice legacies predicted in advance of the Games are rather seldom realized in practice. Several studies (especially those by Graham et al. and Minnaert – see further information below) have examined the post-event benefits on socio-economic well-being of affected communities and are broadly agreed that the main legacies of the Olympics in the locations where new infrastructure has been constructed have been:
(i) Displacement & ‘gentrification’ rather than regeneration. On the whole communities which inhabited areas prior to the building of sporting venues tend to get displaced, either physically or economically (which eventually amounts to the same thing) and the area gets to get taken over by the middle classes.
(ii) The majority of benefit being felt by the middle classes. This relates partly to point (i) but also arises because the developers (usually private sector) of sporting venues wish, quite naturally, to make a profit on the resale of the infrastructure once the games are over. While they have often undertaken to surrender a proportion of the development for social purposes (in the sense of the term ‘social’ housing) as part of their tender, this is invariably a minority proportion with the majority reserved for sale or rent to wealthier clients.
(iii) A questionable sporting legacy. Whilst there is often a burst of enthusiasm for sporting activity in the immediate aftermath of the Games (and there has unquestionably been an increase in some sports in the UK following the London Games, especially cycling and triathlon), in most cases this returns to the pre-Games level in most venues within a relatively short time.
(iv) Usually excellent profit margins for private sector. Generally speaking the private sector tends to do very well out of the Olympic Games (and other major sporting events) but the profit made seldom returns to the public sector in anything like the quantities often claimed beforehand.
The studies referred to above were concluded before the London Olympics and, as we know, these were heralded almost universally as a great success, including a very positive joint report by the Government and the Major of London (see further information). However, the report of Session 2013–14 of the House of Lords Select Committee on Olympic and Paralympic Legacy provided a rather more objective picture which tended to bear out most of the conclusions reached by the earlier studies and summarized above. The Committee was particularly concerned with the poor quality of governance arrangements put in place to ensure that the promised legacies were realized (see summary conclusions on pp. 5-7). This appears to be a common aspect of sporting legacy and seems to have characterized most of the modern ‘mega’ Olympics games (the only one to buck the general trend of underperformance seems to have been the Atlanta games – see Minnaert, 2012). Obviously, it is still relatively early days for the London Legacy but already it seems that the hoped for regeneration of housing in the boroughs that hosted the games is failing to meet expectations. There are several reasons for this, all relating to the operation of market forces and profit motives which undermine the pre-Games expectations. One of the difficulties is that property prices tend to rise in the areas in which Games infrastructure was built leading to the practice of land-banking where developers will sit on land while it rises in price rather than build the much needed affordable houses, the lack of which characterizes so many of the boroughs concerned (see paragraphs 268 – 304 of the House of Lords Report). At least a commitment was made to hive off a proportion of the Olympic village in London for social and affordable housing (though not necessarily for local residents); no such commitment was made in Sydney nor has any been made for the Olympic village in Rio in 2016 (ibid. paragraph 273).
In an era in which the gap between rich and poor is growing, both intranationally and internationally, it is to be expected that political leaders will seize on projects that appear to offer local regeneration and economic development while at the same time fostering national pride and cohesion: this is a dream come true for most politicians. There can be no doubt about the success of London 2012, Brazil 2014, or Glasgow 2014 in the terms of national pride and cohesion. However, where the regeneration and economic development among the less privileged are concerned we might need to be a little more skeptical?
James Graham, Bob Gilbert, Anna Minton, Mark Perryman, Gavin Poynter, Claire Westall, Revisiting the Olympic legacy. Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, Issue 53, Spring 2013, pp. 82-91.
Lynn Minnaert, An Olympic legacy for all? The non-infrastructural outcomes of the Olympic
Games for socially excluded groups (Atlanta 1996-Beijing 2008). Tourism Management 33 (2012) 361-370
HM Government/Mayor of London. Inspired by 2012: The legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. A Joint UK Government and Mayor of London report. July 2013.
HOUSE OF LORDS Select Committee on Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Report of Session 2013–14. Keeping the flame alive: the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy 18 November 2013
London : The Stationery Office Limited. HL Paper 78.
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