Ambitious attempt to grasp the new world map of sport mega events

Christian Tolstrup Jensen
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Billy Graeff
Capitalism, Sport Mega Events and the Global South
193 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2020 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-367-78453-9

Capitalism, sport mega events and the global south is based on an observation: From 2008 to 2022, the location of many sport mega events (most notably the Summer Olympics and the FIFA World Cup for men) has changed remarkably. Since China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 and until at least the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, the events have been on “tour” in the Global South, according to the author.

With the tour coming to an end, the study asks what has characterised the relation between the event owners and these new, local hosts. In other words, “the objective of this book is to develop a political economy of sport mega events” (p. 4) (a political economy being the study of “interaction between political and economic processes within a society” (p. 4)).

An analysis of a political economy requires an eye for both the “macro” and the “micro” level and their interaction, i.e. global capitalism and the local impacts. Graeff’s study is in that regard very ambitious and stand out from the many other studies on individual events in for instance China, Qatar, Brazil, or Russia (but also Germany and England), which have documented the events’ often troubled histories and limited positive or outright negative local consequences – without discussing in detail how these consequences might be due to some global trends.

The macro-micro approach also means the book has two parts. In the first part, Graeff lays out the macro level mechanisms and in the second part, he follows up with a field study of the mechanisms’ local consequences.

On the macro level, Graeff’s main point is that the change in location for sport mega events is due to agents from the Global North taking advantage of the (for them) profitable conditions in the Global South. Theoretically, Graeff bases this North-South division on the theory of uneven and combined development. According to this theory, agents from the Global North (“a place with the greatest abundance of resource consumption” (p. 25)) seek to expand their markets (and thus increase their value) by cutting costs through outsourcing their production (staging of events) to low-wages countries, with governments likely to carry the costs of the events to boot.

At least the first part thus leaves the Global South as indeed a pawn in a zero-sum game with the North in which any difference in the degree of development “due to the nature of capitalist relations” means unevenness.

The beneficiaries when it comes to sport events are naturally international sport organisations like IOC and FIFA but also, according to Graeff, international companies, an argument which fits well with the idea of the Global South as “the regions of the world in the receiving end of globalisation” (p. 25).

Graeff does mention that the Global North is drawing on local allies often from the local elites. He does not however go into any depth when accounting for the role and importance of the local elite agency besides noting that local elites are often important for drumming up support for the events (p. 61) and oppressing local opposition (chapter 3). At least the first part thus leaves the Global South as indeed a pawn in a zero-sum game with the North in which any difference in the degree of development “due to the nature of capitalist relations” means unevenness (p. 23).

The result of this game Graeff then presents in the very brief chapter 3, whose main argument is based on a table, which shows how the general costs of the events, the public share of the costs, the revenue of the franchise owner (e.g., IOC), the constructions costs and the security expenditures have developed during the events’ tour of the Global South.

Overall, Graeff finds that both the costs, the revenue share for the franchise owner, the construction costs and the security expenditures increase. However, someone must pay for these increases and Graeff’s finger points at the local host in accordance with the book’s first part. As he draws this conclusion, Graeff however in my eyes misses some opportunities to discuss his findings in depth and the tendencies in chapter 2 critically.

Construction waste in the countryside in Sochi in October 2013. (Thomas Peter/Reuters/Landov)

With regard to the increased costs, it is relevant to ask with what we should compare these increased costs – and are these cost increases unexpected? Graeff does not relate the study’s ten year snapshot of history to the general development of for instance the costs of the Olympic Games, which have increased almost throughout the entire history of the modern Olympic games (Flyvbjerg et al., 2016).

Comparing the events included in the table also opens for some further discussions. For instance, Graeff includes two cases from the Global North for comparison. However, for the World Cup in Germany in 2006, there is not enough data to make a comparison. This leaves the London Olympics 2012 as the only valid point of comparison, and in terms of general costs and the public share of the expenses, the London Games do not look much of an outlier compared to the Games in 2004 and 2016 in Athens and Rio respectively. Further, the games in 2008 in Beijing, the World Cups in Russia and Qatar and the Winter Olympics in Russia all had/is going to have some extraordinary costs, begging the question what such variations mean for the concept of the Global South.

In the more technical area, in four of the cases (Beijing, South Africa, London and Brazil (2014)), the expenditures (revenue share, construction and security costs) add up to more than the general costs presented by Graeff. It is possible that the franchise owner’s revenue is not linked directly to the costs of the events, however Graeff links these when calculating the revenue relative to the events’ costs. The mismatch between the given total and the other specific expenses makes the relative costs used in Graeff’s argument uncertain and comparisons between the events even more difficult.

Summing up on the first part of Graeff’s study, it shows the shift in the location of the mega events in sport, however I also think that there are more nuances to it with regard to the role of the local agency and the differences within the “Global south” than covered here. Issues or limits which also mark the micro part, which is a case study of the impact of the 2014 World Cup on the locals in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

When Graeff for instance argues that the “entreprenurialism” around events is part of a wider local trend of privatizing health institutions and institutions for education, there must be a local agency (possibly an ‘elite’ of some sort) involved somewhere.

Graeff bases his micro-level analysis on a survey among the households (n= 134 out of a community with 3465 households) and interviews with a selection of public representatives and seven locals.

The analysis’ first chapter is structured around the survey questions and Graeff goes through all of them, which makes the chapter somewhat strenuous to read as one does not get the sense of approaching a climax. Still, the chapter is impressive as the results leave the reader with a rather gloomy image of the perceived impact of FIFA World Cup. In most of the areas investigated in the survey (health, education, housing, security, public sphere performance and employment), the locals perceived few changes for the better and in some cases even a worsening of their conditions.

As part of the bigger study the micro-study is less impressive. At points Graeff does analyse the findings within the framework of the macro study, but overall the dialogue with the book’s first part is limited. The negative results is clearly in line with the framework laid out in the first chapters of the book, but what about the “economic and political interaction”, which constitutes a political economy? The micro study gives little information about for instance the interaction between the locals and the authorities or the local elites and the global elites. When Graeff for instance argues that the “entreprenurialism” around events is part of a wider local trend of privatizing health institutions and institutions for education, there must be a local agency (possibly an ‘elite’ of some sort) involved somewhere.

Indeed, an analysis of the relation between agents on the micro level might just show that the local elites are pawns in a game beyond their control – but would not that be relevant to know about? It would in any case have substantiated the connection between the global structure and the local impacts and maybe pushed it from a correlation (p. 166) towards causality. At the very end Graeff actually points out a few cases in which the locals managed to change the organisation of the event for the better by negotiating with the local elites. There is a local agency after all! A better integration of such cases would have both nuanced and spiced up the analysis of the book.

Copyright © Christian Tolstrup Jensen 2021


Flyvbjerg, Bent, Allison Stewart, and Alexander Budzier. ”The Oxford Olympics Study 2016: Cost and cost overrun at the Games”. Said Business School; University of Oxford, 2016.
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