David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.


Events and the limits of democracy

Over recent months, I’ve been involved in a number of research projects that have, at their core, a concern with the way the events policy terrain has developed in the last decade and, perhaps more importantly, where it is headed.  Projects involving research on the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, the successful Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup bid and, more recently the role of mega events in strategic global leadership have occupied my ‘minimal’ research time.  This post draws on a set of thoughts which will be drawn together for publication soon (hopefully!) but I want to generate some commentary and debate before this process is completed.  The ideas expressed here are not (all) my own either, so I will do the right thing and acknowledge the contribution of Professor Gayle McPherson (@gmp01) and Professor Malcolm Foley for their contribution to these debates!

As we think about the changing dynamic of event policy, especially around major sporting spectacles, it is worth thinking about the drivers for dramatic changes which will result in Russia, Brazil and Qatar hosting these mega events in the foreseeable future.  Demand is a key issue.  More nations now realize the value of mega sporting events to ‘fix’ their destination aspirations in the minds of potential investors, residents and visitors alike. The emergence of new global competitors to the events circuit is connected to the pre-eminence of the neoliberalized order, with its associated urban entrepreneurial activity as the dominant discourse governing economic development globally.  When thinking about the specific context of event policy, neoliberalism – as a modality of governance – provides the parameters for appropriate choices around what the function of events is in the early twenty-first century.  There are remarkably similar discourses adopted across the globe, whereby events are deemed valuable only insofar as they contribute to economic restructuring or growth.  What is also relatively consistent is that the institutional arrangements flowing from a neoliberal framework must also enable growth coalitions to form and public-private partnerships to flourish in the name of place making and promotion.  In those nations with alternative governance systems in place (e.g. China or Qatar) the means of achieving the outcomes desired are different but the underlying rationale for event policy remains very similar. The achievement of economic imperatives is the primary rationale for bidding for peripatetic sporting events.  And, increasingly, as recent bid announcements confirm, the emerging BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and those in the Middle East (e.g. Qatar, Dubai, Bahrain) are succeeding over their western counterparts.  This success can, in part, be put down to the absence of democratic processes and the presence of alternative social contracts between rulers (or leaders) and their populations, whereby resources and legitimation are far less of a problem than for the nations of the west.  For example, in the liberal democracies of the west, decisions on whether to bid and the policy formation process thereafter can be laborious, subject to extensive consultation, consensus building and accountable to citizens (in theory, at least). In some of the nations that have been successful of late in winning the rights to host the two main sporting mega events (the soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games) the processes of decision-making and the distribution of power are much more streamlined and driven by the singular interests of all-powerful rulers (whether the ‘party’ in China’s case or the monarchical regime in Qatar).  It appears that, the strengths of democracy and the associated need for accountability on behalf of political leaders can, in effect, work against those nations competing for the mega event prize against others. 

In sum, I want to argue that the agenda for major events has moved from a concern with being (capable, economically wealthy, culturally advanced) to one of becoming (democratic, developed, culturally rich).  Whereas the mega sporting events of the 1980s through to the early part of the 2000s were (primarily) awarded to those with a proven capacity to deliver on economic return (for event owner and host), the mega event terrain of the next few decades might will be defined by a more developmental agenda – part economic (because that remains crucial), part social (human rights, environment, democracy) and part political (reaching out to the world on emotional level).  So, what for the hopes of the old guard?  Is it likely that they will have a long wait to regain their pre-emimnent position in the global mega event order?  Thoughts?


David McGillivray • April 27, 2011

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