The scene: an office at the University of Zurich on a Friday afternoon in March. A group of students asking questions about mega-events.
I don’t know much about mega-events. What are they?
In general, when we talk about mega-events we mean a very large event that dominates the physical and social landscapes for a while, and then moves on to a new place. Often, these are sports events like the Olympics or the World Cup, but some people talk about Expos or major conferences as mega-events.
For me, one of the key aspects of mega-events is the urban development involved in preparing to host the event. So in this sense, the FIFA Football World Cup is a mega-event, since the host cities must meet an extensive list of infrastructure requirements before the event can take place. On the other hand, the World Series baseball championship in the United States is not a mega-event, because it uses infrastructure that already exists.
I don’t care about sport, though. Why should I care about mega-events?
I would argue there are several reasons to pay attention to mega-events. First, the fact that billions of people do care about sport means there is significant cultural and anthropological value in at least sampling this area of human experience. Let’s take football, for example, which is a global phenomenon. The worldwide audience for the World Cup is over a billion people. What happens here matters to a lot of people. More than this, the World Cup is big business too, involving thousands of people in many different countries and generating billions of dollars in revenue. The World Cup also changes the cities and countries that host it. If you’re a social scientist, you can ask questions about people and places changing in the context of the World Cup. We can see how the tournament affects living conditions change, or we can use the World Cup to find and highlight certain dynamics in the country. We can explore the ways a nation sees itself and wishes to be seen, or we can look at the city and study how preparations for the event shape and are shaped by politics. We can also look at impacts and see what happens after a nation hosts.
What are you working on?
I am currently studying the 2018 World Cup and there is a wealth of interesting aspects to explore. The World Cup is one of the largest sports events in the world, taking place every four years, each time in a different country. The 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia, in twelve stadiums and eleven cities. The host cities are a mix of large and small, cities that are better known to foreigners and cities that are almost unknown outside Russia. The 2018 tournament will run from 14 June to 15 July, hosting 32 football teams – and their fans – from around the world.
I am interested in how hosting this event changes the host cities. One of the best ways of doing this is by looking at changes in infrastructure.
Are there any problems with this? What are some things we can look for?
The preparatory period for any World Cup is complicated. The event is huge – it’s not easy to understand everything that is happening – so we have to be clever about what questions we ask.
In any host city, we can see a basic dynamic: FIFA has requirements for their tournament and the host nation has a legal obligation to fulfill these requirements. Everything flows from this contractual relationship: FIFA makes the rules and the hosts implement them. Complications arise when we realize there can be space between what FIFA requires and what actually happens. Things get more complicated when you factor in local, regional, and national politics, and then explore how different actors try to leverage the preparations to fulfill their own agendas.
Since I’m an urban geographer, I like to see how FIFA’s infrastructure requirements play out in the context of these political interactions, displayed in the urban landscape. I start by asking basic questions like: Where is the stadium? How do guests arrive from abroad? Where do they stay? How do they get from one place to another? These are all questions about infrastructure and, more critically, about what happens to humans when this infrastructure changes. These changes can show us a lot about Russian people and politics.
So in Volgograd, for example, local and regional politicians jockey for funding from Moscow in order to enact their vision of how the city should be. At the same time, the current economic crisis makes this process harder because money is tight. Moscow officials cut World Cup funding for everything except projects that are directly related to the event, but this raises more questions: Where is the line between investments that are “for the event” and those that are “for something else”? If Volgograd’s airport and football stadium are new, but the roads connecting them are full of potholes and the transit system needs work, how can the city host?
But hosting the World Cup makes a lot of money, right? Isn’t that good for host cities and countries?
Mega-event preparations are now so expensive that there is very little chance of recouping money. Then again, I don’t think anybody wants to host mega-events because they make financial sense. Anyone who looks at the numbers can see that they are almost never profitable. Tourism does not count for much, unfortunately, and it is not realistic to assume that every host city of the World Cup will experience a permanent increase in visitors. Instead, we need to think about why hosting is so important to countries and cities. I would say that mega-events are often used to display the power and pride of a nation, and they’re also used to develop cities and regions. But if they’re being used as a strategy to develop the host cities, as Moscow authorities claim, why is so much money being spent on infrastructure that will only have a limited benefit once the event is finished?
One of the problems here is the conflict between the short-term needs of the event and the longer-term needs of the city. So in the World Cup, for example, we often see stadiums built to hold 45,000 fans… in cities where the average attendance of football games is only a few thousand! We see the same tendencies in building airports that are far over capacity for their cities. This is not a sustainable pattern. The problem, of course, is how to balance the immediate needs of hosting the event with the actual needs of the city. Then planners need to decide what is the best use of their resources.
I’m curious how these developments are covered in the media.
There can be controversial moments in preparing for a World Cup, and the news media covers this in different ways, depending on who is doing the reporting. Personally, I am interested in seeing how foreign media covers Russia, comparing this to how Russian media covers the preparations, and then comparing both of these to my own experience. Within Russia, there are a number of good sources of information, but at the same time, as in most host countries, the authorities seem keen to spread a message that the tournament is unequivocally good for the country. Critical views do exist, of course, but my opinion is that they are more rare. These issues exist between geopolitics and urban development and they are often politically thorny. This is particularly true given the current political situation between Russia, Europe, and the United States. Nevertheless, the media lets us look from afar at what is happening in the host cities. If you combine this with event announcements from FIFA and press releases from construction companies and other associated businesses, you can build up a good picture of what direction developments are taking.
How does Russia compare to other host nations?
In both South Africa and Brazil (hosts for the previous two World Cups) we’ve seen a legacy of oversized, under-used infrastructure – what we call White Elephants. This could be a problem in the Russian host cities too, where football is popular but not so popular as to justify such enormous stadiums. At the same time, Russian organizers are using temporary infrastructure in many cities, which will be dismantled after the event. So at least we can see organizers thinking about the White Elephant problem and taking steps to address it, even if those steps might be insufficient. Some host cities may be in worse positions, however, regarding their stadiums. Saransk and Samara are small cities that are building oversized stadiums, so they have less chance of using the facilities once the games are gone. In general, the problem is that infrastructure is being built to suit the requirements of the event, and these do not necessarily correspond with the needs of the people in the city.
Could we see a happy ending to World Cup development?
Potentially, the host authorities could use the development impulse from the World Cup to improve the road and public transit infrastructure in the host cities. More than new stadiums or luxury hotels, this investment would legitimately benefit many residents. If the cities improve their public transportation in ways that benefit the long-term needs of residents, then I think that people will remember this as a positive legacy of the World Cup. There are problems here, however, of time and scope: there is a finite time for World Cup development, and as the deadline approaches, organizers tend to sacrifice everything for the immediate needs of the event. So they will certainly build a new road to the airport and new roads around the stadium, but will they have time to build or repair roads in other areas of the city? Will they have time to introduce an improved transit system? Or will they build a transit system to serve only the event before it disappears?
In the end, preparing for the World Cup could leave Russian host cities with new football stadiums, renovated airports, new hotels for guests, and beautiful transit systems. It could also bring attention to the cities both nationally and internationally, and perhaps the host cities will host increasing numbers of prestigious international sporting events, trade fairs, and conferences. Or, possibly the World Cup could leave the Russian hosts with expensive, oversized stadiums that drain the city budgets for upkeep costs, alongside airports that see few visitors, in cities filled with empty hotels and aging, overburdened transit systems. The question is whether regional and municipal managers can leverage resources from Moscow authorities to invest in projects that will serve the long-term needs of the city and not only the short-term needs of the event.
Where can I learn more about mega-events?
Take a look at the following list. This is a good start for anyone interested in exploring mega-events academically:
Andranovich, Greg, Matthew J. Burbank, and Charles H. Heying. 2001. “Olympic Cities: Lessons Learned from Mega-Event Politics.” Journal of Urban Affairs 23 (2): 113–31. doi:10.1111/0735-2166.00079.
Baade, Robert A., and Victor A. Matheson. 2004. “The Quest for the Cup: Assessing the Economic Impact of the World Cup.” Regional Studies 38 (4): 343–54. doi:10.1080/03434002000213888.
Frawley, Stephen, and Daryl Adair, eds. 2014. Managing the Football World Cup. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Grix, Jonathan, and Barrie Houlihan. 2014. “Sports Mega-Events as Part of a Nation’s Soft Power Strategy: The Cases of Germany (2006) and the UK (2012).” The British Journal of Politics & International Relations 16 (4): 572–96. doi:10.1111/1467-856X.12017.
Hiller, Harry. 2000. “Toward an Urban Sociology of Mega-Events.” Research in Urban Sociology, Research in Urban Sociology, 5: 181–205.
Horne, John, and Wolfram Manzenreiter. 2006. “An Introduction to the Sociology of Sports Mega-Events.” The Sociological Review 54 (December): 1–24. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.2006.00650.x.
Müller, Martin. 2015. “The Mega-Event Syndrome: Why So Much Goes Wrong in Mega-Event Planning and What to Do About It.” Journal of the American Planning Association 81 (1): 6–17. doi:10.1080/01944363.2015.1038292.
Müller, Martin, and Sven Daniel Wolfe. 2014. “World Cup 2018: Already the Most Expensive Ever?” Russian Analytical Digest, no. 150 (June): 2–6.
Parent, Milena M., and Sharon Smith-Swan. 2013. Managing Major Sports Events: Theory and Practice. Routledge.