An alternative approach to planning sports mega-events: exploring opportunities in the wake of sdg-11

Sengupta, Mitu (2018). 'An Alternative Approach to Planning Sports Mega-Events: Exploring Opportunities in the Wake of SDG-11' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Competition to host sports mega-events (SMEs), such as the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, remains vigorous, especially among developing countries, and the study of how these SMEs impact their host cities and local populations has generated a substantial body of literature. While it is conceded, in this literature, that some SMEs have produced beneficial consequences – such as when after the 1972 Munich Olympics the athletes’ village was converted into community housing for students – there is a stronger focus on negative consequences, such as slum demolitions and other ‘beautification drives’ that disrupt livelihoods and communities, widen spatial inequalities, and weaken local democracy (see, for example, Matheson and Baade 2004; Dupont 2013). It is noted, furthermore, that the shifts produced by SMEs are not accidental by-products of a haze of sporting fun, but are fully intended by the political-bureaucratic elites that bid for, plan, and execute these events. One might say, in fact, that SMEs should be regarded as powerful policy instruments that can alter their host cities for better or for worse.  Black and Northam (2016) argue, for example, that SMEs create “a moment of opportunity for social re-imaginings and redirection that, if productively harnessed, can make exceptional projects possible” (p. 437), and that “there is a tendency for certain countries and cities to make a habit of mega-event hosting as a central feature of their development policies” (p. 440).


It is thus possible, at least in theory, to use SMEs to promote ethical development practices, and build inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities. Unfortunately, however, this has not been the case so far. Black and Northam point out, for example, that the “concept of development that has been privileged in the planning and execution of [SMEs] is elite-driven or ‘top-down,’ often following a predominantly neoliberal logic” (2016, pp. 436-7), and Pillay and Bass argue that SMES “are often used as ‘spectacles’ that can best be understood as either instruments of hegemonic power, or displays of urban ‘boosterism’ by economic elites wed to a particularly narrow-minded pro-growth vision of the city,” a vision of “trickle down growth” and “fast-track development” (2008, p. 331). At the level of the city, the use of SMEs to propel rapid, top-down change has been observed in a number of cases, such as ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (Bénit-Gbaffou, 2008; Cornelissen 2011) and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China (Broudehoux, 2007), and following the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India (Baviskar, 2014; Dupont 2013).


My paper tries to imagine the possibility of breaking from the path that SMEs seem to be set on. If we were to take an alternative approach to SME-planning and execution, what would that look like? How might we reach beyond the usual preoccupation with economic growth and global status-mongering to emphasizing better goals, such as poverty reduction, equity, inclusion, participation, and environmental sustainability? How might such an alternative strategy be promoted, and how strongly would it be resisted?


Bearing such questions in mind, I make the case for formulating a clear, normative framework for guiding the design of SMEs, that is grounded in an anchoring principle such as sustainable human development or human rights, and that would re-direct policymakers’ focus from enhancing aggregate growth to realizing the rights or enhancing the capabilities of individuals. If adopted, such a framework would push policymakers to take the well-being of the least advantaged as their starting point, and avoid disproportionately burdening any group of people with the costs of change associated with the SME. Evaluating decisions against human rights criteria, for example, would help decision makers “identify where their policies are likely to produce, or have produced, discriminatory outcomes or outcomes that are otherwise undesirable” (Robinson 2005, p. 35), and prompt them, moreover, to re-evaluate the notion of ‘acceptable costs.’ If a policy is likely to produce human rights violations, it would need to be rethought, even in the face of expected long-term gains. I argue that while an alternative approach to SMEs would likely be strongly resisted, worldwide endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which are founded on the concept of sustainable human development and also include a standalone goal on “sustainable cities and communities” (SDG-11) – presents advocates with a unique window of opportunity to express and promote their vision.  





Baviskar, A., 2014. Dreaming Big: Spectacular Events and the ‘World-Class’ City: The Commonwealth Games in Delhi. In: J. Grix, ed. Leveraging Legacies from Sports Mega-Events: Concepts and Cases. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 130–141.

Bénit-Gbaffou, C., 2008. In the Shadow of 2010: A Fast-Tracked Local Democracy, or How to Get Rid of the Poor in Ellis Park Development Project, Johannesburg". In: U. Pillay, R. Tomlinson, and O. Bass, eds. Development and Dreams: Urban Development Implications of 2010 Soccer World Cup. Pretoria: HSRC Press, 200–222.

Black, D., and Northam, K., 2016. Mega-Events and ‘Bottom-up’ Development: Beyond Window Dressing? In: G. Anderson, and C. Kukucha, eds. International Political Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Broudehoux, A.-M., 2007. Spectacular Beijing: The Conspicuous Construction of an Olympic Metropolis. Journal of Urban Affairs, 29 (4), 383–399.

Cornelissen, S., 2011. More Than a Sporting Chance? Appraising the Sport for Development Legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Third World Quarterly, 32(3), 503-29.

Dupont, V., 2013. Which Place for the Homeless in Delhi? Scrutiny of a Mobilisation Campaign in the 2010 Commonwealth Games Context. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, (8).

Matheson, V.A. and Baade, R.A., 2004. Mega-Sporting Events in Developing Nations: Playing the Way to Prosperity? South African Journal of Economics, 72 (5), 1085–1096. 

Pillay, U., and Bass, O., 2008. Mega-Events as a Response to Poverty Reduction: The 2010 FIFA World Cup and its Urban Development Implications. Urban Forum, 19, 329-346.

Robinson, M. (2005). What rights can add to good development practice. In M. Robinson & P. Alston (Eds.), Human Rights and Development: Towards Mutual Reinforcement (pp. 25–41). Oxford: Oxford University Press.







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