SR Intro: hosting the world

Environmental advancements, political consensus, social progress… In this introduction, Professor Geoffrey Lipman argues that the impact of a well-executed global mega-event is of a magnitude that reaches far beyond the drama in the stadiums

London 2012, Shanghai Expo 2010, the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa… more than just sporting or cultural events, all have proved to be transformative moments in the histories of their host nations. This potential of mega-events to be national change agents is increasingly recognised and a key reason why so many states are entering bidding contests.

In the final analysis, the nation-building, global positioning and community development that mega-events offer are substantial and impossible to replicate

Consider this: as the world watched London 2012’s quirkily stunning opening ceremony, firms worldwide made a mental note to reach out to Britain’s creative sector next time they were seeking talent for an offbeat advertising campaign or an artistic project. Two years prior to that in Shanghai, with the Expo crowds dispersed and the national pavilions dismantled, a journey that began for China with Beijing 2008 had reached its next milestone: China was now open for business, open for tourism and open to the world.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the US$440m Soccer City (now known as FNB) stadium – built for the World Cup – has provided a sporting focal point for Johannesburg’s Soweto township, while rapid transport systems – another World Cup initiative – have transformed a traditionally car-reliant culture. Most importantly, perhaps, a nation still struggling with its socio-political transformation was also gifted a powerful new source of national pride, renewing and broadening the spirit of the “Invicta” Rugby World Cup of the previous decade.

The fact is that hosting a global mega-event, when done properly, enables a nation to achieve myriad goals it might not otherwise have been able to. The scale of this impact can be far-reaching, spanning infrastructure, social benefits, and environmental advancements – even world diplomacy. People in the tourism industry often refer to the “transversal” nature of mega-events, in recognition of their inherent potency. Such is their latent power that they can serve as catalysts for countless positive legacies.

World diplomacy

One of the most compelling upsides of a global event can be its social legacy. For while nations increasingly wake up to the global-positioning potential of a mega- event, the reality today is that decision-makers must also consider from the outset the ways in which the local population will be affected, involved and engaged, and how to secure sustainable benefits, if the event is to be a success.

South Africa, for example, made a huge effort when staging the 2010 Fifa World Cup to involve the local population. Organisers secured buy-in from communities beforehand and also instigated a fairly priced ticketing system to ensure it attracted more than just an elite participation. This approach also extended to stadia, with locations being chosen on the basis of whether or not they would benefit the local population rather than for their high visibility. Three years on and Johannesburg’s ‘cathedral of football’, the FNB Stadium, is now a major venue, playing host to historic rugby fixtures, headline music acts, and now home to one of the country’s most popular clubs, Kaizer Chiefs – all this in one of the least advantaged areas of the city.

Another powerful aspect of the mega-event is its ability to bridge political silos. The ambitious and far-reaching nature of such events make it necessary for all levels of government to work together and agree on processes at a level and depth that is rare among ministries and departments.
When an event of such national importance is being planned it changes the mindset about thinking and working together and propels the decision-making capabilities of environmental and social issues up the political priority rankings. In this way it creates a window of opportunity to secure cross-party political commitment to undertake the great infrastructure and urban renewal projects needed to host an event such as an Olympic Games, a World Expo or a football World Cup.

Such joined-up thinking was evident during and after the Beijing Games. China implemented groundbreaking environmental practices, the impact of which are still felt today and may not have been addressed for years to come without the catalyst of the Olympic Games. For exam-
ple, to counteract the higher than usual levels of pollution created by the huge influx of visitors during the Games, the government restricted residents to using their cars on alternate days. An adapted version of this environmentally aware system remains today. It also dramatically improved its border reception with a new airport terminal, easier entry procedures and smiling officials whose efficiency you can rate during processing.

Halo effect

Of course an evident feature of global mega-events is the enduring promotional halo effect. With billions of eyeballs focused on a host nation from the time an event is awarded up until the event itself, the potential for nation-branding is huge. When you consider the cost of advertising during a two-hour Super Bowl it is not hard to see the lasting value from a tourism perspective of a global mega-event that attracts billions of multimedia viewers during the preparatory and wind-down phases. It is generally recognised that the real economic impact of hosting an event is less during the period of the event itself compared with this long-term halo effect.

End-to-end television coverage also enables nations to showcase far more of their country, in a more diverse way than a simple advert. Week-in, week-out TV coverage of the London 2012 torch relay, for example, took viewers on a tour around broad sweeps of the UK, showing the nation at its most energised and offering the kind of free tourism publicity that money simply cannot buy. At the same time, though, despite the clear positive balance of benefits, would-be hosts need to take a pragmatic approach. Successful execution of a mega-event requires massive socio-political buy-in, big costs and meticulous planning and execution.

But in the final analysis, the nation-building, global positioning and community development that mega-events offer are substantial and impossible to replicate. The key to getting it right is to ensure that green-growth sustainability commitment – environmental, social and economic – is realistically built in from the outset.