What is the Effect of Mega Events on International Relations?

The Olympic Games in South Korea are just behind us, and the Paralympics will begin soon. Later this year, the World Soccer Championship will take place in the Russian Federation. In April, the annual Formula One car racing circus is going to be launched in Bahrain.

There is an ongoing debate on the pros and cons of mega-events like these: are the assumed advantages for the hosting countries (global attention, tourism, media as amplifiers, potential reconciliation between conflict partners) predominant, or is it the possible negative consequences (after-event empty sports venues, no lasting gains in employment, huge costs, sometimes corruption and negative environmental impact)?

In a couple of instances, prospective hosts have put the issue on a referendum, only to learn that a majority of the regional population concerned was voting an application down, or at least threatening to do so (Budapest 2017; Referendums have sunk five Olympic bids over the last two Olympic bidding cycles, and potential Olympic referendums ended the Boston bid and now many end the Budapest one. Some referendums curtailed a potential bid before it was submitted to the IOC, while others came at different stages during the candidature process.

In Germany, both Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Hamburg authorities experienced defeat by their respective populations. The IOC is experiencing problems finding suitable host states or regions, and was happy to find at least one bidder for 2022 and 2026, respectively.

So, are huge sports events like these not popular anymore? Or is it rather about a ‘Not in my backyard’ mood – people like to watch events on TV, but do not want them in their neighborhood?

The second aspect is about the original idea that during Olympic Games conflicts between states had to be put to rest, or at least for the duration of the games themselves. The apparent thaw between South and North Korea during the games in Pyeonchang seems to confirm that. The fact that Olympics were often boycotted seems to show the opposite (Berlin 1936, two boycotting countries;  Australia 1956 – eight countries; Japan 1964 – three countries; Canada 1976 – 34 countries; Soviet Union 1980 – 66 countries; USA 1984 – 18 countries; South Korea 1988 – 7 countries).

So this week’s question is: How do you assess the effect of big sports events on international politics?

– Klaus Segbers

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  1. Dmytro Sherengovsky 1 week ago

    The sports issue could easily be considered one of the “traditional questions” for international politics. Cold War period is a bright example of confrontation beside politics when sporting events were ideologically used as an element of political pressure or political propaganda. Nowadays, international competitions or championships are perfect instruments of state soft power, which in particular allows indirect political methods or non-political methods aiming to share the “image of power” for the international or domestic audience. Moreover, international sports events serve as tools for the legitimization of the political regime: Olympic Games in Sochi 2014 or Kosovo in gaining membership in UEFA and FIFA in 2016. It is hard to imagine that states can refuse to use such comfortable tool. Nevertheless, the economy of international competitions is playing on the “contra side” of the making-profit issue. Decaying venues from the 2004 Olympics became a metaphor for Greece’s economic crisis. Countries and cities that host such mega-events are spending more than making a profit according to the number of studies (f.e. A. Zimbalist. Circus Maximus: The Economics of Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, 2015). In such situation, more interest could be found in the developing economies that are willing to give a signal that a country is open for business.

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  2. Alexei Voskressenski 1 week ago

    Big sport events have their pro and contra. The organizers who take decisions for these big events are appointed by various committees or organizations, they are not elected and they are not responsible for the population where these events take place. They are not asking people, they decide on behalf of the people. So, the organizers should be prepared that the regional population may vote these events down. And this is the new reality: such type of events or activities must have an approval of regional population.

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  3. Andrey Makarychev 1 week ago

    Sport mega events remain what they used to be for decades – commercial performances with a high level of administrative regulations and corruption. One interesting thing is that, in spite of all this, international sport organizations, being concerned about their global reputation, are putting a strong premium on normative issues, including anti-doping measures. “Clean sport” became a real policy. Another point worthwhile noting is that this policy, supported by legal steps and decisions, might in a matter of months ruin hyper-expensive efforts of some illiberal regimes aimed at using mega events as a soft power tool. Sochi is a good example: the Russian Olympic project, designed as a heyday of Moscow’s soft power, is nowadays basically associated with the revealed state-supported doping system. The lesson is evident: when it comes to sport mega events, yesterday’s assets might become today’s burdens.

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  4. Sergei Medvedev 1 week ago

    Mega sports events have become one of the key arenas of symbolic politics, a beauty pageant for nation states, and a PR façade for authoritarian regimes (see the emerging geography of Formula 1). Democratic societies are increasingly averse to these wasteful narcissistic vanity fairs, a relic of 20-century mass politics.

    However, the Olympics and World Cups are a much cheaper alternative to war, and put national egoism to some productive use. The question should rather be about making the Olympics cheaper (perhaps putting a maximum limit on the cost), environmentally friendly (enforcing stringent international environmental control), non-disruptive for the local communities, less commercialized and more accessible to non-professional athletes. Oh, and cleansed of the corruption and collusion of the IOC and international sports bureaucracies. This would be a good test case for global governance based on openness, sustainability and participation.

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  5. Justas Paleckis 1 week ago

    I would assess the effect of big sports events on international politics very positively. It is better to compete – sometimes even dishonorably – in the Olympic Games or the World Cup, rather than to have a conflict and fight. The Olympic spirit and fair play rules are often forgotten. But sometimes a miracle happens. This is exactly what happened during the PyeongChang Olympics: the apparent thaw between South and North Korea. There are many chances that this thaw will end soon, but the fragile hope remains. It is very good that referendums are held for the organization of big sport events in the cities or regions. Their decisions should be decisive. There will be enough countries and cities wanting to hold such events. Until now, the right to do this was often obtained even by using dirty methods. Interesting figures are presented about the boycott of the Olympic Games. There were only a few of them – only 7 in 38 summer and winter games. Most important world leaders should attend the Olympics as often as possible – the contacts between them are vitally necessary. They could take an example from the irreconcilable enemies just recently – South and North Korea.

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  6. Nikoloz Tokhvadze 1 week ago

    From the inception of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, this and other mega-sport events have gradually proved to be painfully expensive. Hosts of the event, having propensity to underestimate the cost of the tournament (Sochi winded up costing $51 billion, instead of initially planned $10 Billion), are not able to keep up with ever-increasing expenses, hovering over the diminishing revenues and taking decades for damage mitigation. Arguably, Greece’s current financial predicament, to a certain extent, is due to poorly calculated monetary risks of 2004 games.
    Such mammoth expenses, despite having the utility to act as a monetary tool for stimulating economy, are making hard to justify investments in ‘soon to be empty stadium’ versus wider array of opportunity costs (vital bridges or railways). Even factoring in the ‘intangible benefits’ (cultural influence, tourism or reconciling with the arch-nemesis) cannot vindicate the bitter price. While the Olympic committee is having a hard time finding potential hosts, South Korea’s “Détente” with north still needs to be proven as a diplomatic breakthrough and not an overpriced political gimmick.
    On the other hand, mega-games, often organized on the whims of rather autocratically inclined leaders, represent a podium for them to boost their domestic popularity but also get an international exposure and re-gain (albeit temporarily) relevance.
    Lastly, these events are obviously also a celebration of the planets most talented and hard-working athletes transcending the borders what was deemed as humanly possible. It’s worth to keep such moments around, despite the financial and political ramifications.

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  7. Friederike Kies 1 week ago

    Big sports events can have positive effects on international politics. How? During big sports events athletes of different nationalities come together and compete against each other. This is also a form of international politics, just on a different level. States come together and can forget about their “usual business” for a short period of time. Deeply rooted international conflicts will presumably not be resolved simply by joining a sports event, but this could be a first step towards more cooperation. I believe huge sports events are still popular despite the frequently low availability of hosting candidates. However, experiences of people destroying other´s property as it was the case among others during the G20 Summit in Hamburg does not necessarily enhance people´s willingness to host international events of any kind. Big sports events are a first get together, a “warm up” for possible future negotiations on other issues of international politics.

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  8. Tobias Lechner 1 week ago

    Recently, several cities in Europe decided against being host of mega sports events. The argument is that the tax-payers have to pay billions of Euro for each event, whereas only the constructing industry and its employees in the respective city will benefit. That’s not wrong: Such events hardly pay off. If political leaders hope such mega events boost their ranking in country brand ranking indices, they will be disappointed: The effect is negligible, the costs are extremely high. Interesting is to observe that fewer Western countries want to be hosts of such mega events, whereas East Asian and autocratic states see such events as welcome opportunity for presenting themselves on the global stage. One explanation could be that the checks and balances system within liberal-democratic states works well, and citizens are able in participating in a deliberative way in the decision-making process. This conclusion would disprove the assumption that liberal-democracies are often less effective than autocracies.

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