Promoters of the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and other large sporting events often spruik the great benefits that will flow onto society as a result of hosting such events. Better sporting facilities, increased sports participation, cleaning up city areas and improved public transport are all cited as probable legacies.
But the reality is usually far different to the hype, according to Dr Alana Thomson, lecturer in International Sports Management at Federation University. In fact, unless well planned, large sporting events can often leave communities worse off.
“For my PhD I studied the World Masters Games in Sydney in 2009, which emphasised healthy lifestyle legacies for seniors in the community, but the main priority for this event was the tourism and economic impacts, and there was very little on encouraging and enabling our seniors to get back into sport,” she says. “I just found a broken system. People were developing an event rather than developing the sport.”
Since then, Dr Thomson, a keen sporting participant, has researched how we can create positive legacies through sport. She was also involved at the policy level during the planning phase for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. As Australia looks to host major events over the next decade – including the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 2026 and the Olympic Games in Brisbane in 2032 – we need to intentionally take particular actions to ensure a positive result for the community, she says. This includes asking how do we design this event to get the best outcomes over the longer term. “Every area of legacy shows we need to plan more,” Dr Thomson says. “And it’s rare that sport is given funding to help create those positive legacies.”
One mistake sports event organisers make is to focus on creating state-of-the-art stadiums that can become “a big white elephant” if they are not designed for ongoing multi uses, such as training or match facilities for local clubs. “To have the best stadium for the event might not be the most useful thing for local sports development going forward.”
When an economic boom is predicted as a result of a big sporting event, local business owners often get the wrong idea. “The local coffee shop isn’t necessarily going to sell more coffees,” Dr Thomson says. Instead, the positive economic impact is often felt at the world scale, with trade deals secured or a country’s hosting prowess leading to more events.
Another mistake is assuming that volunteers at the grassroots of sports clubs want the same thing from an event as elite athletes and teams. “The government, the event people, they’re all making the promises, but when you talk to the sports people on the ground, they talk a different language,” Dr Thomson says.
“They don’t share the same vision or understanding. In terms of sports participation, they aren’t interested if more people are doing parkrun or more walking – they need people to sign up to their club. But big events need lots of volunteers and they come out of the event, and they’re probably burnt out. Then, if you do attract more kids into a netball club, for example, you’re creating more work for the volunteers – the more people, the more courts and coaches you have to have.” Dr Alana Thomson
Currently, Dr Thomson is looking at the effect that the 2032 Olympic Games have already had on the Brisbane community. “Housing costs have already increased since the Olympics were announced,” she says. “This affects the rental crisis we were already watching develop. What does that mean for vulnerable people in the community?”
She says it’s vital to improve the outcomes of sporting events for women. “The data shows that rates of domestic violence increase around the AFL and NRL grand final by up to about 40 per cent. How do we minimise that impact and how do we shift that behaviour, and how do we contribute positively to that space?”