Games without frontiers

Sarah Juggins

Do the Commonwealth Games bring long-term benefits to the host city? In return for the cost of putting on the Games, host countries usually hope for economic and social change in the wake of the multi-sport spectacle 

When the starting pistol is fired on 23 July, the eyes of the Commonwealth and beyond will be glued to the sporting action as it unfolds before them. While millions of spectators enjoy the drama on the track and field, away from the athletic action the organising committee of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games will be hoping for success that goes beyond just winning medals. 

Chief executive of Glasgow 2014, and former wrestling star, David Grevemberg has been involved in organising international multi-sports events since 1994. Grevemberg, who hails from New Orleans, is bubbling with enthusiasm as he talks about Glasgow’s showpiece event. “We are celebrating the Commonwealth through arts, sport and culture. The Games mirror the complexities and gloriousness of the Commonwealth. Glasgow 2014 is moving the event from being a ‘family games’ to being a ‘connected games’.” 

As someone who first encountered the Commonwealth in 2002, when he worked with the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games organising committee on integrating paralympic sports into the athletic programme, Grevemberg is full of praise for the power of the movement. “It forces a conversation about where we have been, where we are now and where we are going. This is what I mean by a ‘connected games’. It is a chance for members of the Commonwealth to share ideas and raise questions – some of them difficult ones.” 

At a less philosophical level, the CEO says that Glasgow can expect the Games to have a far-reaching impact, some of which is already visible. 

“Investment in the infrastructure is already making a big difference. Commuting times have been cut from 45 minutes to 15 minutes due to the new ring road. You could argue that this would have happened eventually, but if you ask anyone from the City Council they will tell you that the Commonwealth Games has led to the investment.” 

And Grevemberg’s enthusiasm is matched by that of the nation’s politicians. At a time when the eyes of the world are on Scotland and the ongoing question of independence, its ability to take centre stage on an international scale is under scrutiny from both home and abroad. Scotland’s Sports Minister, Shona Robison, told the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka that the Glasgow 2014 Games will be a “powerful catalyst” for economic growth, regeneration and promoting healthy lifestyles. 

She added that the Games have captured the imagination of young people, with a survey suggesting that 94 per cent of 11 to 18-year-olds were interested in them and more than a third are hoping to watch live events at the venues. 

But how successful can a multi-sport event such as the Commonwealth Games be in providing an economic boost and regeneration to host cities? As far back as the 19th century, the Games were being touted as a conduit for change. Founder of the event, Reverend Astley Cooper, wrote in 1891: “A Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years will increase goodwill and good understanding of the British Empire.” 

Cooper’s dream was realised in 1930 when the first Commonwealth Games were held in Ontario, Canada. This inaugural event saw 400 athletes from 11 countries take part. Since then they have taken place every four years with the exception of 1942 and 1946, when they were disrupted by World War II. This year, at the 20th Commonwealth Games, Glasgow will play host to 6,500 athletes, representing 71 countries. 

But the early ideals of bringing the Commonwealth community together have now been displaced by an altogether more 21stcentury aim: to gain as much economic advantage from the event as possible. In an article published by the Institute of International Trade, the five areas deemed to be affected when hosting a mega-sporting event were transport infrastructure, telecommunications systems, sports facility structure, housing and urban culture. 

Recent Commonwealth Games have proved the point. Manchester laid thousands of metres of fibre optic cables that are now supporting the city’s telecommunications system; Melbourne benefited from a new competition swimming pool, a state-of-the-art cycle track and major improvements to the Melbourne Cricket Ground; and Delhi’s standing as an international urban city has risen exponentially as a result of the 2010 Games, with improved roads, a world-class airport and many new business hubs. 

Despite this, it is nigh on impossible to quantify the impact of major sporting events on a country’s economy, and the economic rationale is often questionable. While such events will leave substantial legacy in terms of infrastructure and urban renewal, much depends upon the extent to which the new facilities fit the broader economic interests. 

For example, when investment is needed in a country’s basic infrastructure, then a demand for investment into stadiums and sports facilities may be counter intuitive. Will sports stadiums turn into expensive white elephants, using money that would have been better spent on the road system? Grevemberg thinks not, pointing to the example of the Chris Hoy velodrome. “The velodrome is already the most well-used velodrome in the world. Local and regional teams train there, we hold ‘come and try’ days and we have hosted the UCI Junior World Cup. It is there to cater for all levels of cyclist.” 

Analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests that the economic impact of the Commonwealth Games can be split into three phases: pre-Games, during Games and post-Games. The pre-Games phase includes a boost for construction activity, although the economic benefits are off-set by operational costs. During the Games, revenue from tickets and other sales, job creation and tourism are all cited as benefits, while the costs include operational expenditure, congestion and displaced projects. During the post-Games phase, the benefits are tourism, urban regeneration and international reputation, while the maintenance of structures becomes an expense. 

Manchester has long been hailed as a city that largely got it right. What the City Council was at pains to avoid was simply seeing the legacy in terms of regenerated or new sporting facilities. The council wanted a much wider legacy including improved educational and personal development opportunities, better community health and more competitiveness among local small to medium-sized businesses. 

A legacy programme was created – the 2002 Economic and Social Programme for the North West – aimed at ensuring that disadvantaged communities throughout the north west of the UK would benefit from Manchester hosting the event. This programme invested £17.7 million into Games-themed projects across the region. Much research has been carried out subsequently on the impact of the Games on both Manchester and the surrounding areas. In 2002, Cambridge Policy Consultants identified the following key benefits of hosting the event:

– 6,300 jobs were created in the local area. This is equivalent to ten jobs per £1 million of public investment, compared to nine jobs created for every £1 million at other international sporting events

– An increase of £22 million in turnover for local companies relating to a mix of stimuli, such as construction contracts through to an increase in visitors to the city

– An increase of 300,000 new visitors a year, spending some £18 million within the local economy 

However, a true test of legacy is whether projects survive the test of time. A report by ECOTECH Research and Consultancy found that of the seven projects supported by the Manchester Legacy Programme, four are still operating; more than 8,000 businesses were helped across the region; 2,637 people were encouraged into voluntary work; and more than 3,000 people received a recognised qualification as a direct result of the Games legacy. 

Dr Andrew Smith, an academic specialising in sports-related regeneration, has concluded that while Manchester did achieve a long-term legacy, it also missed opportunities for enhancing sustainability. One of its biggest failings, according to Smith, was its failure to include the community at a strategic level. This meant that the real needs of the area were sometimes not understood and some of the legacy projects were not embedded in local programmes to the extent they could have been. 

However, Smith and the ECOTECH researchers also agreed that the Manchester Commonwealth Games were noteworthy in one major way, and that was their positioning as an ‘event-themed’ programme, rather than an ‘event-led’ one. This means it did not rely on the impact of the Games themselves to stimulate regeneration, but instead used the events as a stimulus for a much more diverse range of activities and projects. 

Much of the success of the Games, wherever they are held, is measured by the international reputation secured as a result of the event. This is a benefit that is difficult to quantify and there remains a belief among critics that the notion of ‘economic benefits’ is simply a facade created by politicians to legitimise huge spending on these events when, in fact, they are simply enormously expensive public relations exercises. 

Grevemberg disagrees. He argues that Glasgow is already seeing a change to its international image. “It is now seen as a hub of entertainment, the arts and sport. There is a definite change to the stereotype.” 

However, as Delhi demonstrated, there is also a danger of negative publicity. The preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi largely served to remind the world about rampant corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and infrastructural shortcomings. Delhi’s problems were exacerbated as the city’s inability to demonstrate any form of cohesion or organisation was compared with the immaculate planning of the Beijing Olympics just two years earlier. 

Despite this, Delhi did manage a successful Games. The overall economic impact was valued at $4.9 billion on India’s GDP during a period of four years from 2008- 12, and it created employment for around 2.5 million people. 

Foreign investment was attracted to Delhi and India has now become a popular destination for global companies. Many of the Western nations so critical of Delhi’s preparation for the Games are now involved in trade deals with India and Delhi’s message to other countries is that it is a ‘world class city’. 

So, what can we expect from the Scottish offering? David Grevemberg is at pains to point out that the Glasgow legacy plan is exactly that – planned. “The framework for the legacy is clearly owned by Glasgow City Council and the Scottish government. It is unusual for a framework to be so clearly laid out. The ambitions are there and the committee is in place to achieve them. Everything that we do is linked to three core strands: legacy, community and investment.” 

And already Glasgow is seeing change. The latest update from the Scottish government’s legacy assessment found that the use of local authority leisure facilities was up from 2008 and the amount that the sports and recreation sector contributes to the Scottish economy has risen by 15 per cent since 2008 to £508 million. 

The experience of the previous host city suggests that some of the impact will take longer to be recognised. Participation in sport in India still stands at less than one per cent of the population, although some disciplines, such as running and cycling, have seen an increase since the 2010 Games. However, within the last four years, Indian car giant Tata has introduced sports days to its workforce, in recognition of the power of sport to improve cohesiveness and teamwork among its employees. 

There has also been a slow, but positive movement in academic circles. Grants derived directly from the Commonwealth Games support the Institute of Physical Educational and Sports Science based at Delhi University. This money has helped fund sports science labs, gymnasiums and physiotherapy equipment. 

Dr Devinder Kumar Kansal, head of the institute, says: “There was less participation before 2010 and now the people are considering that sports should be for all, maybe for competition, maybe for lifestyle. All these things have been boosted after the Commonwealth Games.” 

Returning to Glasgow, Grevemberg is convinced that the Games are already having a significant impact on the economy. What excites him to a greater extent is the less tangible impact on the nations of the Commonwealth. 

“To me, the design of the tartan to be used in the Games is the most powerful symbol. It was designed by 15-year-old Aamir Mehmood, who is Pakistani by birth, but born and raised in Glasgow. Now that highlights the importance of youth and diversity. And the question we should be asking is: How do we use the Games to inspire and excite the citizens of the Commonwealth? 

“Yes, hosting the Games will have a huge impact on Glasgow, but taking the wider view, the Games are about taking collective responsibility to promote peace, prosperity, equality and community across the Commonwealth.”

About the author:

Sarah Juggins is a freelance journalist specialising in sports writing, health and fitness


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