Black-white photo shows a sprinter with handycap at the Paralympics in Rio 2016.

A Matter of Governance

There is evidence that social support and networking contribute to building a sense of identity and strong self-image across diverse ethnic and cultural groups. What responsibilities and benefits does global sport bring to society as a whole?

Many years have passed since former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared 2005 to be the International Year of Sport and Physical Education, which provided the impetus for incorporating sport into UN policies and programmes. A plethora of stakeholders took up the challenge of placing sport at the centre of a global agenda of societal transformation. Guided by the Millennium Development Goals and then by the Sustainable Development Goals, sport featured prominently on the post-2015 Development Agenda.

In this way, sport emerged as a low-cost way of fixing society’s problems, with the world’s youth earmarked as change agents. Academics and agencies came up with ways of mapping the field in order to bring some order and understanding, but they made little headway as research evidence mushroomed in all corners of the globe. Implementing agencies contracted impact assessors and evidence poured in at an astounding pace. In his book 'Sport for Development. What Game are we Playing?' Fred Coalter was sharp in his criticism and warned that ‘hope is not a plan’. He questioned the value of sport as a stand-alone strategy to meaningfully address deep-seated social issues and discriminatory systems.

Host cities and governments nevertheless proclaimed a wide range of socio-economic benefits associated with sport. They framed human legacy projects as meaningful contributors to human justice by providing access to sport as part of a human (and children’s) rights agenda. The 2010 FIFA World Cup, the planned 2022 Commonwealth Games in South Africa and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Brazil are outstanding examples in this regard.

Sport for the World

The shift in rhetoric from national to global can also be discerned in the difference between the 2004 (Athens) and 2008 (Beijing) Olympic Games, which focused strongly on national development and nationalism and the 2012 London Olympics, which promised global access to sports participation through its International Inspirations legacy programme.

Going beyond the often confusing and intertwined public discourses, many sport-for-development programmes remained donor controlled and dependent. Unequal access to power and resources remained at the core of many programmes, and the results were neatly mediated in response to preconceived indicators.

In this way, sport emerged as a low-cost way of fixing society’s problems, with the world’s youth earmarked as change agents.

With this background in mind, the question arises: what is the responsibility of global sport towards society as a whole?

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) position statement about delivering on the Post-2015 Development Agenda identified six Sustainable Development Goals in which sport (from grassroots to elite levels) is used to make a difference. It advocated the use of sport in different ways and in different settings to:

  • Ensure healthy living and promote wellbeing for all at all ages (Goal 3);
  • Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all (Goal 4);
  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (Goal 5);
  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (Goal 11);
  • Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (Goal 16); and
  • Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership or sustainable development (Goal 17).

Global and national sports organisations responded and set a different pace. FIFA’s Football for Hope project for example, as well as the IOC’s Sport for Hope programme was launched. The latter programme entails establishing two Olympic Youth Development Centres in Zambia and Haiti (see the IOC Agenda 2020) and funding programmes for Olympafrica centres situated in socio-economically vulnerable communities to provide open access to sports participation for disenfranchised children and youth. Such centres inevitably provide additional community-driven programmes in addition to the (IOC) Solidarity-funded Olympic education initiatives.

They generally follow a top-down approach to ensure that priority sports and recreation facilities and activities are provided through physical education, school sport and/or community-based facilities. They articulate policy frameworks and visions to deliver on a broad spectrum of aims to be a ‘winning’ and ‘healthy nation’.

Sport alone cannot prevent violence and conflict or facilitate peacebuilding, but it has a role to play as part of an integrative approach. For children and young people who are affected by the trauma of conflict or war, participating in sport in safe spaces contributes to normalising their lives as part of a healing process.

Going beyond the often confusing and intertwined public discourses, many sport-for-development programmes remained donor controlled and dependent. Unequal access to power and resources remained at the core of many programmes, and the results were neatly mediated in response to preconceived indicators.

Many programmes have cut-across benefits relating to participation in sport and recreational activities. This represents a holistic approach and inter-related effects such as improvements in health and education levels, building social capital, addressing inequities, improving community safety and environmental aspects.

Crime Reduction Interventions

Measuring the impact of crime reduction interventions is no easy feat as the effects of many programmes are not scientifically scrutinised. However, there is evidence that demonstrates the positive effects of sport and physical activity on antisocial behaviour by targeting underlying risks, protective factors and/or explicit behaviour. Various programmes and practices that address social ills include behaviours relating to issues such as crime, substance abuse, suicide/self-harm, homelessness, unemployment, mental health, truancy, and early school leaving. These types of behaviour are considered deviant compared to existing social (ideal) and widely accepted norms within a societal context.

For money invested in sport there are multiple returns in terms of improved health and reduced demand for health services, particularly among older people; improved productivity; economic regeneration; better employment opportunities; and, most importantly, national, regional, and local GDP. In view of the potential savings to the economy from the health gains associated with increased physical activity, it makes good business sense to promote an active lifestyle from a young age.

The quantifiable evidence in support of the perceived, and often widely propagated, benefits of mega-events is relatively weak and often unsubstantiated – especially in terms of economic development. The positive effects of hosting international sporting events relate to sport-specific, economic, social, and cultural benefits. Sport-specific benefits include attracting resources to particular sports and providing learning opportunities and experiences for athletes, officials, coaches, and volunteers.

Economic spin-offs entail job creation, regional development, tourism, exports, infrastructure, and tax revenues, whilst social benefits relate to access to training and participation. Cultural gains include the portrayal of a unique cultural identity and gaining global recognition.

Not all economists are convinced of the sustainable effects of regenerating host cities due to relatively short-to-medium-term assessments. An event may be a valuable trigger for leveraging regeneration funding, but if it is to have a meaningful impact, it has to be part of a long-term development strategy and wider vision for city regeneration and plans for the sustainable after-use of venues.

Under-utilised facilities and climbing maintenance costs may burden taxpayers for many years after an event. Lessons from the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and 2004 Athens Summer Olympics relating to costly infrastructure development were well learned by the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics.

Growing Importance of the Global South

As hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa and Africa were acknowledged as sporting powers and as evidence of the growing importance of the global South. It was a symbolic award and proof of the host country’s closeness to the world’s top nations. Some metropolitan municipalities built spectacular stadia and infrastructure, and by doing so, improved the positive image of their cities.

The multiplier effect of economic benefits is often questioned. Cost-benefit studies conducted at city, regional and national level revealed that spending by foreign visitors and visitors from in-country regions is difficult to calculate in terms of what is event-related spending, minus leakages of profits being transferred out of the area. Inflated prices during the event may stretch existing capacities for accommodation, transport, and other vital services. Also, prices may go up artificially without sustainable economic benefits for operators within host cities.

The crowding out effect of people leaving the area during mega-events, the limited air transport capacity and the critical analysis of multiplier coefficients all need to be considered when calculating the economic effects.

For local and mega-events, thousands of volunteers create significant cultural capital, which in turn may have economic and social benefits, although it has not been sufficiently measured to provide substantiated longer-term benefits at individual and city level.

For local and mega-events, thousands of volunteers create significant cultural capital, which in turn may have economic and social benefits.

Hosting events does not automatically translate into increased levels of sports participation (mass participation) or sustainable elite sporting success. There is no conclusive evidence that hosting mega sporting events has lasting effects on broad-based sports participation. Increased mass participation may be the result of particular sports gaining greater media exposure or recruiting current participants to a particular sport. It does not seem that watching sport converts individuals into active participants.

Sport as Part of the Socialisation Process

One of global sport’s key contributions is in the field of education and training: education within and through sport takes place in both formal and informal settings. Formal education mostly deals with a specifically designed curriculum, as in the case of physical education at schools, learning centres or tertiary education institutions. Informal learning in and through sports participation forms part and parcel of the socialisation process whereby values, attitudes, skills, and knowledge are transferred. This can happen in a wide variety of educational settings.

A sports education environment with the inclusion of social skills also makes a tangible contribution to learning about fair play and key life skills and values, which contribute to a decrease in harmful (anti-social) behaviour. Exposure to teamwork improves social interaction, communication, and leadership. Exposure to multi-activity sport with half of the lesson time being devoted to moderate to vigorous physical activity translates into positive health and fitness as well as psychosocial benefits.

Global sport is not democratic. Sport at all levels is a differentiator and shows socially stratified patterns in terms of participation and ownership. Even at grassroots level, girls often need (male) gatekeepers to facilitate their participation in traditionally male sports.

Safety issues and entrenched patriarchal ideology make it difficult for girls and women to freely participate in sport at all levels. Policymakers have limited ability to ensure that boys and girls have equal access to sport at all levels.

It is also clear that the situation is often exacerbated when athletes need access to specialist coaching, training facilities and sport science services. Gender and lower socio-economic status tend to provide a double bind that negatively affects access to participation and decision-making positions within the sports fraternity and in the broader spheres of society as a whole.

Racial Stacking Patterns

Certain ethnic populations experience a similar disenfranchisement in contexts where the face of poverty ties in with a particular racial profile. This is also behind the overrepresentation of certain racial groups (e.g. Afro-Americans) in basketball or boxing, and of white participants in sports like sailing and swimming. Racial stacking patterns further perpetuate stereotypes, with white players being favoured as decision-makers and black players for their speed and athletic ability in team sports like rugby.

Another pattern of social stratification relates to the concept of ‘ability’ versus ‘disability’. The latter refers to a physical impairment causing functional limitations. Classifying people as ‘disabled’ or as ‘athletes with disabilities’ involves an ability-based ranking system that cuts across all sports, but it also relates to the comparison of people with and without ‘able’ or ‘normative’ bodies. In societies where young and able bodies are held up as the ideal, less able bodies within a normative category such as older and disabled persons may experience marginalisation and discrimination.

The inception of the Paralympic Games in 1948 led to global perceptions changing so that people began viewing different abilities in a more positive light. The amazing feats of Paralympians changed the medical model (focus on impairments) to cross into the realm of the ‘normal’. Successful media campaigns popularised Paralympians and events in such a way that London’s 2012 Paralympics sold more tickets than the Olympics themselves. South African athletes such as Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorius also broke down barriers by competing against able-bodied athletes. The differently abled body set its own norms and standards and led to attractive events during the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

The Special Olympics that host sports for people with intellectual disabilities has become a global enterprise that sponsors research, builds support communities and offer different educational programmes. It sponsors about 50,000 competitions yearly and hosted 7,500 athletes from 185 nations at the 2011 World Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

The human stories from the Special Olympics and the amazing physical feats of the athletes with disabilities, including their use of technological advancements (e.g. specially designed race chairs, and prosthetic ‘blades’) captured the imagination and did a great deal to change perceptions about ability.

Sports participants and elite athletes project an image of youthfulness and optimum sporting ability compared to older people, who are assumed to be incapable of full participation in mainstream activities. Studies of sports participation among people over the age of 50 are relatively rare despite the fact that people over the age of 60 are the fastest growing segment globally.

Global sport is not democratic. Sport at all levels is a differentiator and shows socially stratified patterns in terms of participation and ownership.

Sport-related impacts do not happen automatically. They have to be carefully planned, socially engineered and professionally managed. Therefore, governance issues have become a top priority for global sports bodies to ensure high ethical standards, combat corruption and professionalise sporting careers and organisations. Global sports organisations are increasingly being scrutinised and questionable practices (and individuals) exposed, but such scrutiny is less apparent in organisations at national and local level where political agendas are particularly influential.

The impact of sport in wider society is directly dependent on the effective and focused delivery of programmes, with the understanding that positive effects are possible under certain circumstances, for certain populations, and in certain contexts. Sport provides the scope for change to happen and has inherent characteristics that can be ‘harnessed’, but in itself it is no miracle worker. With development as a contested and complex phenomenon, global sport agencies have yet to develop impactful social strategies and programmes.

About the Author
Cora Burnett
Professor of Sport Sociology and Research Methodology

Cora Burnett is Professor of Sport Sociology and Research Methodology at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa and Director of the UJ Olympic Studies Centre. Her studies include impact assessments in the areas of sport, health, education and enterprise, sport for development and peace projects, as well as positive youth development and gender empowerment.

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