It is July 29, 2012. I am on a bus with other journalists being whisked through South-East London on a lane reserved for Olympic vehicles. Beside us, I am uncomfortably aware, snakes a long queue of non-Olympic traffic. It is at this point that I spot a road sign that makes me do a double-take. It says: “Ha Ha Road Closed.”
I later checked on a city map and there is, improbably, a Ha Ha Road in that area of the UK capital. No matter: imagine that you don’t know that and you are an ordinary motorist enduring a journey that is taking much longer than it should because the Olympic circus is in town. And then you see that sign. How do you suppose it makes you feel?
It is a small thing, but it helps to illustrate why, seemingly, the world is turning against mega-events.
Don’t get me wrong; sporting festivals like the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup are all perfectly splendid for those of us lucky enough to inhabit the bubble. I would hate to be without them.
But more needs to be done to encourage buy-in from those who feel locked outside.
These are the people who put up with the traffic jams, the disruption during the construction phase and sometimes the increased taxes and fast-inflating prices.
In a period when so much of the world has been condemned to a long spell of financial and economic turbulence, promoting stress and insecurity for the vast majority of people struggling to make ends meet, more simply must be done to give ordinary citizens of the cities and countries that host these glittering jewels of the TV age something tangible in return.
Yes, when times are good, it may be enough to experience a month-long feelgood factor, when strangers talk like old friends, and to know that some of the world’s best athletes are trying their hearts out in your backyard.
But I know plenty of Londoners, far from radical and whose views in other spheres I respect, who still believe that the money lavished on London 2012 would have been better spent elsewhere.
And London 2012 was probably, along with the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the most successful sporting mega-event of recent times.
Fan-zones, where large numbers can watch big screens for free in a party atmosphere, were a positive step and do help – especially when well-sited and not excessively commercialized. The Berlin experience in 2006 was, by all accounts, mind-blowing; Durban’s fan-zone on the beach four years later certainly helped to make a drab World Cup encounter between Portugal and Brazil a lot more memorable than it otherwise would have been.
Volunteer programs have also clearly accentuated the sense of pride and involvement of many thousands around the world when events are in their city.
But these programs depend on substantial amounts of people having significant chunks of time that they can afford to donate.
Mega-events now are going through a period when they are branching out geographically into the so-called BRIC economies (the countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, which are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development), plus the likes of South Korea, Turkey and, for that matter, South Africa.
The logic behind this is sound: growth prospects both for sport and the economy as a whole are generally better in such fast-developing countries than in the mature, fully industrialized places that used to enjoy close to a monopoly when it came to hosting the biggest world events.
However, this expansive strategy is taking sports bodies into nations which typically contain a higher proportion of seriously deprived people than the host-cities of the past.
I am thinking of the sort of people who would struggle to find the spare cash to pay for transport to get to their nearest fan-zone, let alone to buy any drinks or souvenirs once they got there.
The bodies behind today’s colossal festivals of sport, in my view, simply have to find more effective ways of reaching out to these people.
Otherwise they risk falling prey to the sort of demonstrations we have witnessed in Brazil, sometimes marshaled by people every bit as media-savvy as they are.
Bear in mind that, even if such demos are less serious than sometimes reported, or can be contained by police action, the damage often has already been done: the value of the global spotlight from which host-Governments and private sponsors seek to draw benefit is inevitably diminished if the atmosphere surrounding an event is perceived as repressive, rather than joyful and excited.
Big Sport is starting to get the message: for example, FIFA officials just lately seem particularly keen to emphasize the long-term benefits for local populations, rich and poor, of the transport and other non-sporting infrastructure being put in place in Brazil ahead of next year’s football fiesta.
These officials are, of course, right. But getting that message through to people for whom each and every day is a battle to put food on the table (that’s if they have a table) takes patience and expensive long-term planning. Such message-making simply has to be made more of a priority.
I have a few suggestions:
In addition to the poorest in event-hosting societies, the local business community can also feel locked out when it comes to deriving concrete benefit from the competitions taking place in their neck of the woods. Infrastructure jobs can be so big that they gravitate towards the biggest, best-connected companies.
The typical structure of associated marketing deals whereby global corporations pay large sums for exclusive rights in defined product categories also doesn’t help if it means that local companies, as well as competing multinationals, are prevented from using an event to try to boost their business.
Yes, local populations can benefit from big, event-related construction projects by snapping up jobs that would not otherwise exist. But pay and working conditions can leave much to be desired.
Sports governing bodies need to put pressure on authorities – at the time when they have leverage ( i.e. at the bidding stage for tournaments) to ensure that decent conditions, on a par with the very best local practice, are applied in event-related projects and that small businesses are awarded a proportion of the work.
This may lead to criticism that they are poking their noses into areas far removed from sport. When low standards creep in, however, the brand values of governing bodies and sponsors, as well as host-cities and – nations, can be affected. Sports authorities should be robust in making this point.
As for sponsorship deals, yes, by all means ensure that your partners are protected against ambush marketing by their main multinational competitors. But don’t fling lawyers’ letters at bona fide local businesses. They need to be allowed the opportunity to prosper from the once-in-a-lifetime festival of sport taking place on their doorsteps. Lock them out, and you risk sowing disillusionment among the middle-classes as well as the poor. Event owners would be well-advised to avoid this even if the value of their associated marketing rights is somewhat reduced as a consequence.
Sponsors should also be offer incentives to draw up plans aimed at helping even the most underprivileged corners of the host-society to feel included in “their” event.
I am not always the greatest fan of Atlanta’s most famous soft drinks purveyor, but I was very struck by one of the marketing initiatives they deployed three years ago at the World Cup in South Africa.
Joe’s Butchery, a bar-cum-restaurant in deprived Alexandra township, where I watched Japan versus Paraguay, was one of about 1,000 “taverns” across South Africa kitted out by Coca-Cola as unofficial World Cup viewing sites.
Around 150 of these were supplied with large LCD televisions screening all the World Cup games live.
At this particular outlet, the associated branding, including around the TV set itself, did seem pretty strident.
But in many respects, Coke appeared to have adopted an enlightened approach to its business relationship with the establishment’s energetic operators, Laly and William Mathebula.
The Mathebulas told me Coke had not told them they could not sell other beverage brands.
Nor, it seemed, was the multinational too proud to try to piggy-back on the excellent local reputation of the business’s grilled meats: one menu displayed on the wall offered “Coke 500ml + T-Bone, Pap + Chakalaka” for Rand 88.88 (£5.40/$8.70/€6.44).
Of course, some will be cynical and say big business would just think up new ways of exploiting the poor. But, if done right, as in that relatively impoverished corner of Johannesburg, such initiatives could have a big impact.
Heading off the backlash against mega-events with which we are currently threatened in this way would absorb not insubstantial quantities of cash and brainpower. But I really don’t think the authorities have much choice if these grandiose cash cows that periodically inject so much color into our lives are to retain popular goodwill in their hosting communities.
Platitudes will no longer do; sports authorities and their partners simply must try harder to give the little guy a real stake in the grand designs where the circus pitches its tent.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. To follow him on Twitter, click here. This column is published with permission from the editors of InsidetheGames.