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Large sporting events key to soft power


The Olympic Games and the World Cup offer host cities and countries a unique opportunity to make their mark on the world stage. However, such global sporting events aren't always held just for fun.

If war is the pursuit of politics by other means, as the German strategist Clausewitz once put it, then organising the Olympic Games is the pursuit of war by peaceful means.

According to Loïc Ravenel, the scientific collaborator at the International Centre for Sports Studies in Neuchâtel, the Games are always viewed as a statement on the national and international stage.

“It’s a completely geopolitical message: we are a great power because we are able to host a major sporting event. That is the definition of soft power – the ability to assert one’s power through means other than military.”

Ravenel continued: “It has to do with showing the world the ability to organise an event like that. Beijing did it in 2008, and today London is showing that Britain is still capable of doing it. They are placing great emphasis on the fact that they are welcoming the Olympic Games for the third time.”

Britain is therefore in the midst of re-asserting its power, a significant achievement considering the state of European economies after the financial crisis.

The capital of globalisation

“London is seeking to reaffirm itself as one of the centres of globalisation and show the world that it is a global village,” Ravenel added, noting that only sports are capable of creating a global event reaching millions of spectators via television.

London’s success is even more remarkable given that today’s Western world often sits on the sidelines when it comes to event organising.

“The ‘ancient world’ (Europe, the US, Japan) is no longer involved in the organisation of major global sporting events and relatively few countries are in a position to organise them. If you look at the Olympics and the World Cup in the past few years, emerging powers have been first in line to host them,” he said.

For example, after the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014, while Russia will host the Winter Games in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018. Qatar will welcome the World Cup in 2022.

Power relationships

According to Ravenel, the geographical locations of these major sporting events perfectly reflect today’s power relationships among the world’s countries and regions.

Researchers say turning a profit on such events is of secondary importance to the host city or country.

“The existing assessments, especially financial ones, should be taken with a grain of salt. But the benefit to a country`s image in the media, which is very difficult to measure, is very real,” Ravenel said.

However, not all of a host country’s citizens necessarily profit directly from major sporting events and their portrayal in the media.

Organising these events creates legal exceptions and complications such as the prohibition of street vendors in South Africa, allowing alcohol sales in Brazilian stadiums even though it is normally illegal, and the forced evictions that took place in China in 2008. Those evictions were the subject of a 2009 report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Those left behind

“Numerous past experiences have shown that redevelopment projects adopted in preparation for the Games often result in extensive human rights violations, particularly of the right to adequate housing,” wrote Rachel Rolnik, the author of the 2009 report.

“Allegations of mass forced evictions and displacement for infrastructural development and city renewal, reduced affordability of housing as a result of gentrification, sweeping operations against the homeless, and criminalisation and discrimination of marginalised groups are frequent features in cities staging the events.”

The report continued: “The impact of these practices is mainly endured by the most disadvantaged and vulnerable sectors of society, such as low-income populations, ethnic minorities, migrants, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and marginalised groups (such as street vendors and sex workers).”

Ravenel sees it a different way. “In the case of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the goal of the pacification of the favelas is to get rid of the drug cartels and reinvest in police and public works projects. Those neighbourhoods might become gentrified as a result, but the people living there can also hope to break free of the drug cartels’ control.”

Risk management

Pascal Viot, lecturer at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, notes another paradox of hosting major sporting events.

“A gathering crowd is risky and dangerous. By increasing the number of inhabitants and visitors, the city that opens itself to the world also puts itself in danger and opens itself to potential troublemakers. So, it’s an opportunity to better one’s image as well as a risk.”

Viot adds that security has become a cornerstone of hosting large sporting events.

“We expect that organisers will take into account the risk of terrorist attacks, which are unlikely but very feared. It’s a way for countries to prove their ability to organise. That is also a show of political force.”

Until the 1930s, the Olympic Games and other international sporting events had only a minimal impact on the urban landscape.

In 1932, the city of Los Angeles played host to the Games to reignite the local economy and constructed the first Olympic village whose inhabitants were housed in permanent structures.

In the 1970s, the ties between international sporting events and the use of urban land became yet closer with the construction of sports arenas in inner cities designed to reinvigorate downtown areas.

After 1980, the International Olympic Committee first enlisted the private sector’s help in promoting the Games. In the 1990s, organisers began to view hosting major sporting events as an integral part of good urban planning in a globalising economy.

This new approach was reaffirmed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where the Games had a double objective: to modernise infrastructure and promote a new image of the city as a centre of architectural innovation and international inspiration.

Today, those two ideas preside – to varying degrees – over the relationship between major sporting events and their host cities, and they have considerable impact on the city’s economic and social development.

(Source: Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Raquel Rolnik, December 2009)

(Translated from French by Veronica DeVore)

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