A study with interesting theoretical perspectives and a sound empirical basis

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Christian Tolstrup Jensen
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Nelma Gusmão de Oliveira
Mega-Events, City and Power
192 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2022 (Routledge Critical Studies in Urbanism and th City)
ISBN 978-0-367-56365-3

What are the mechanisms that combine the most spectacular sport events the world has ever seen and some of the most failed cases of intensive urban development? These are the questions the analysis in the book Mega-events, city and power by Nelma Gusmão de Oliveira sets out to answer.

Oliveira answers the questions in two parts, which I would describe respectively as an historical overview of the international development followed by an analysis of the current relationship between the international event owners and the local stakeholders. In both parts, the study’s theoretical framework – not least Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory – acts as an important point of reference for the book. After all, it is a study of the construction of the “rules and conventions” surrounding international sport events (p. 16) and the convergence between the field of the sport spectacle production and city production.

The material for the analysis is mainly based on official documents from IOC and existing studies of the Summer Olympics. FIFA is discussed too, but to a much lesser degree. Rio 2016 and Brazil’s recent event experiences are positioned as important cases for the study too, but they drown a bit in the analysis, which leaves the impression of a study taking a rather broad sweep across recent mega events.

The point of the first part is to introduce IOC as an organisation that always has sought after occasions to confirm its autonomy. Oliveira starts the history with IOC’s praise of the amateur ideal , only to go on to show how IOC in the 1980s managed a turn-around towards independence based on the commercialisation of the Olympic brand. This is a well-known story, and the book does not add much to our understanding of exactly how IOC ended up where it is today – not least as the analysis draws heavily on the memoires of the former head of marketing in the IOC Michael Payne.

How FIFA nevertheless manages to organise its events is not discussed, but FIFA must be said to represent some sort of alternative model to IOC.

The central point in the historical overview is for me instead the embedding of the well-known narrative in the book’s theoretical framework. Oliveira’s argument is that the changes in the 1980s brought IOC symbolic and financial capital as well as cultural capital encapsulated in the regulations, which the book covers in its third chapter. Here is a good example of how IOC due to its well-documented regulations on every aspect of the Olympic Games takes centre stage whereas FIFA’s regulations are “not very clear” (p. 96). How FIFA nevertheless manages to organise its events is not discussed, but FIFA must be said to represent some sort of alternative model to IOC.

Yet for the IOC the conclusion is clear: IOC-regulations naturalise the committee’s demands to the host city and make cities adjust even before they are eventually awarded the events. Long before protesters can mobilise, IOC’s ideas have already settled among the decision makers, thus making protesting much more difficult as they often only start once the application is official.

The local stakeholders are further scrutinised in the book’s second part. Again this is a group that has been subject to previous studies of e.g., “growth coalitions” formed by a triangle for entrepreneurs, media and politicians (p. 120), which Oliveira recognises by very extensive referencing (not least to Andranovich et al., 2001). It is however interesting how a market of consultants makes the triangle into a square as cities need cultural capital to bid for the Games.

(Shutterstock/lazyllama)

In the book’s final parts, the theories come into focus again, this time lead by Poulantza’s idea of “fascistization”, Agamben’s idea of hegemony and Žižek’s suggestion that technocrats can replace the competitive democracy – at least in some cases. In general, Oliveira argues that sport events require a consensus, which the elites establish leaving no room for protests from below. However, a comparison between the Games in London and Sydney and Atlanta and Rio also shows, according to Olivera, that existing local regulations and traditions can limit the influence of IOC’s demands. A nuance that makes it relevant to analyse such mechanisms in non-democratic countries like Russia, China and Qatar.

In the end, the study makes a convincing case that sport events impact urban development – and vice-versa. Although there are aspects of the study, which will be rather familiar to sport event researchers, it has also been rewarding reading a book length study that summarises what we know about how the coalitions work, and shows how regulations on sport events have a long history and development. Coalitions are more complex than negotiations at the moment. The study shows from interesting theoretical perspectives and a sound empirical basis that the stakeholders draw on the common knowledge and informal dynamics of the sport event field.

But for how long? Oliveira describes Rio 2016 as the peak of the Olympic neo-liberalism (p. 38) and IOC might change significantly due to the increased popular protests potential host cities give rise to. Time will tell. And from where should this change come? This is a study of organisations rather than human agents. Even if Michael Payne presents his perspective, one gets the sense that organisations and fields are ruled by normative regulations. It remains for future studies to show how change eventually could squeeze in.

Copyright © Christian Tolstrup Jensen 2023

Reference

Andranovich, G., Burbank, M. J., & Heying, C. H. (2001). Olympic Cities: Lessons Learned from Mega-Event Politics. Journal of Urban Affairs, 23(2), 113–131. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735-2166.00079

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