What do major sporting events leave behind?

Gold medal winning Australian swimmers on the victory dais

by Professor Paul Burton, Deputy Director (Gold Coast) of Griffith University’s Urban Research Program

Along with thousands of fellow Gold Coasters, I was at the Broadwater Parklands on the morning of November 12, 2011, to learn the outcome of the competition to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Like everyone else, I too punched the air in delight when the result was announced.

Deputising for then Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who was in St Kitts for the official announcement, State Treasurer Andrew Fraser declared that winning the Games would “change the nature and future of the Gold Coast”.

This is a fascinating and important consideration.

For those of us who watch major sporting competitions such as the World Cup or the Olympic Games, it is our memories that stay with us in their aftermath. If we have attended in person, we may also bring back mementos such as a ticket to the final, a T-shirt or photographs.

But what about the host cities? What remains for them after such events?

Event legacy describes the positive elements left behind after a major sporting event and it has become an important factor in the competition between prospective host cities. Winning bids are now determined as much by the promise of event legacy as by the capacity to host an event successfully.

It was not always so. Before the 1990s, little attention was paid to the wider impact of hosting any major sporting tournament, let alone one of the magnitude of a Commonwealth or Olympic Games.

Reputation and prominence

However, this changed by the start of the new millennium as hosting major sporting events became an established part of global competition between cities for which reputation and prominence rank among the most significant measures of urban success.

The competition to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games epitomised many of the contradictions and geopolitical complexities of these global processes.

The fact that the Commonwealth is a global institution of waning significance may help explain why only two countries eventually submitted bids to host in 2018, with the Sri Lankan bid from the city of Hambantota widely believed to be supported by the Chinese Government as part of a wider strategy to build its presence in the Indian Ocean.

Nevertheless, and as Queensland Premier Campbell Newman observed, the chance to host the Commonwealth Games is extremely important to a city such as the Gold Coast.

“These Commonwealth Games bring tangible and intangible benefits to the Gold Coast and all of Queensland that go well beyond the staging of the event,” he said.  (Embracing our Games Legacy, 2013*)

In many cities, including Glasgow which has just hosted the 2014 Commonwealth Games, these tangible and intangible benefits include the opportunity to revitalise parts of the city, particularly those blighted by deindustrialisation and decades of urban disinvestment and decay.

This can be controversial, especially when limited public funds are seen to be redirected from much needed public services and poor residents are displaced by major building projects.

That’s where the Gold Coast’s plans are different, because we are not a city that has been ravaged by deindustrialisation and we will not be bulldozing poor neighbourhoods to build iconic stadiums.

A profound impact

However, the impact of the 2018 Commonwealth Games will still be profound and we want,  and need, to know more about this in the build-up to the event itself and beyond.

At Griffith University, we are creating a team of researchers to explore all aspects of the impact of the Games on the city.

Led by myself and Professor Kristine Toohey from Griffith’s Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management, we are also working with experts from outside the University. These include Professor Ade Kearns (University of Glasgow), who visited Griffith University in April; Professor Simone Fullagar (University of Bath); and representatives from major consultancy firms such as AECOM and key stakeholders in the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast.

As Gold Coast Mayor Mr Tom Tate has said: “We must maximise this once-in-a-generation opportunity and ensure 11 days of hosting the 2018 Commonwealth Games translates into decades of economic prosperity and a lifetime of social and cultural enrichment.” (Embracing Our Games Legacy, 2013)

Our program of research is designed to support this bold ambition in a number of ways.

Firstly, we will be conducting a systematic review of existing research into the impact of global sporting events so that we are best placed to learn lessons from the past and appreciate the complexities of legacy measurement.

Secondly, we will work with others, especially in State and local government, to help build the most rigorous framework for assessing legacy benefits.

Thirdly, we will contribute to the ongoing planning of legacy by providing reliable evidence of what works and what does not.

The initial legacy strategy for the Commonwealth Games highlights three areas in which we can expect to see lasting benefits: our economy, our community and our lifestyle.

This means we will be looking to see how many new jobs are created in the construction sector through building new venues and facilities to hold the Games.

It also means measuring the extent to which we are inspired by the Games to become more active and to lead more healthy lifestyles.

And it means exploring how the city as a whole grows as a vibrant and diverse community that is recognised as such on the global stage.

There are many technical and political challenges in doing this type of research and in producing work that is practically relevant and which meets the high scholarly standards we expect at Griffith.

We welcome these challenges and invite anyone who shares these interests and commitments to join with us over the coming years in this exciting program of research.

*Embracing Our Games Legacy, 2013 is the result of a collaboration between the Queensland Government and City of Gold Coast to undertake broad consultation with business, industry and sporting and community groups across Queensland to inform the development of “Embracing our Games legacy: Queensland’s legacy for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games”.