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Rationales for investing in elite sport and mega events

This is an excerpt from Social Sciences in Sport by Joseph Maguire.

Distributing Resources:
Elite Sport and Mega-Events

The case of elite sport investment is slightly different. Here, I consider the political rationale for investing in elite sport and mega-events, bearing in mind that state investment is a finite resource. Sums invested in elite sport are not invested elsewhere, so the reasoning behind decisions about how to distribute resources is highly political (see Houlihan & Green, 2008).

Sport offers both an individual and a collective experience—something recognized by modern states that invest heavily in elite sport in order to engender a so-called feel-good factor among citizens that is said to exist in the collective experience of sporting events (Department for Culture, Media, and Sport/Strategy Unit, 2002). Riordan (1999) rightly points to the nation-building potential of sport when he suggests that sport extends and unites wider sections of the population than probably any other social activity. It is easily understood and enjoyed, cutting across social, economic, educational, ethnic, religious and language barriers. It permits some emotional release (reasonably) safely, it can be relatively cheap and it is easily adapted to support educational, health and social-welfare objectives. (pp. 49-50)

In addition to this inward-looking benefit from elite sport success, the outward-looking concept of international prestige is often invoked as part of the justificatory discourse for spending. Many states seek to use sport externally to promote the country's image, gain prestige, and even exert influence over other states (so-called soft power; see Nye, 1990; Grix & Houlihan, 2013; Grix, 2013a). Prestige has long been recognized by scholars as an “indispensable source of power” in international relations (Reinhold Niebuhr, cited in Kim, 2004, p. 40), one that works alongside traditional material forces of power such as guns and bombs. Sport is clearly part of a nation's package of measures available to improve and project its image abroad; success at (elite) sport is easily recognizable to other states, and it appears that in order to be considered a leading nation a state needs to produce internationally competitive athletes and teams (see Strenk, 1979). Internally, states seek to bind individuals around these collective, national experiences of sport success and engender both the feel-good factor and a cohesive identity akin to that of Benedict Anderson's “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1983; Nye, 1990).

The literature on elite sport development (ESD) is relatively new, and studies inquiring into why countries continue to invest heavily in supporting elite sport and hosting mega-events are few and far between in political science (early literature includes Green & Oakley, 2001; Green & Houlihan, 2005; Green, 2007b; Houlihan & Green, 2008; Grix & Carmichael, 2012). This is baffling, for if politics is in part about the struggle for resources and an analysis of who gets what, when, and how, then posing the unanswered question of why governments invest so much public money into elite sport ought to be second nature to students of the discipline. We ought to question both the uncritical acceptance of millions of dollars being pumped into elite sport and the concurrent discourse surrounding such investment that takes it as a given.

This is particularly the case in light of the fact that the rationales for state investment in elite sport (international prestige, identity formation) are not confined to advanced capitalist states. So-called emerging states are increasingly interested in using sport to accelerate their entry into the developed world. Take, for example, India's—and Delhi's—recent staging of the problematic Commonwealth Games in 2010. This could certainly be read as an attempt by a developing country to announce to the world that it has finally arrived. It appears that for developing countries the ability to stage a mega-sporting event is a rite of passage into the developed world. Unfortunately, a series of setbacks, collapsing infrastructure, environmental factors (including snakes and monkeys), and corruption appear to have scuppered India's ambition of holding an Olympics in the near future (“IOC Chief,” 2010). Indeed, students of politics can find a veritable Aladdin's cave in such an event as the Delhi Games, the political context within which it took place, the political ambitions of the host nation, and the struggle for interests, resources, and influence that surrounded its staging. Allegations of bribery, backhanders (i.e., under-the-table payments), and crooked politicians were commonplace, and the question remains unanswered of how India could invest billions of dollars in a sporting event when a large part of its population—who did not get to see, use, or benefit from the event—has no access to clean running water (Burke, 2010).

Cross-country and cross-regime comparisons can help us understand similarities and differences between states and their instrumental uses of sport. We can also compare across time; for example, an analysis of both capitalist states and the authoritarian socialist East Germany and (consumer-)communist China reveals parallels in the key characteristics of elite sport systems and the rationales behind them (Dennis & Grix, 2012). Not only are the key characteristics of the sport models similar (i.e., sport science, talent identification, professional coaching, funding for full-time athletes), but also all regime types appear to strive for international prestige on the back of elite sport success. Most, albeit to differing degrees, attempt to use sport to generate pride in their nation (the elusive feel-good factor). Such comparisons of the rationale behind elite sport investment reveal that, despite local variations and differences, national models of sport could be said to be (generally) moving toward convergence (Houlihan & Green, 2008; Dennis & Grix, 2012).

Learn more about Social Sciences in Sport.

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