I listened on recently as a member of the Scottish parliament described the transformation effect sport has had on his city, Glasgow, over the course of his relatively short adulthood. While, as a child, being subjected to pervasive messaging which labelled Scotland’s largest city ‘the sick man of Europe’, he now takes particular delight in the continued regeneration on our west coast.
This renaissance owes much to the foresight and subsequent effort of those who have successfully secured events like the 2014 Commonwealth Games, FIG World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and 2018 European Championships for the city, amongst many others.
Accordingly, the catalyst for this revolution of sorts has been sport. A great love of sport, has, in the words of this MSP, driven and irreversibly altered how his constituents experience the city in which they reside: be it in the evolving cityscape, the upgraded infrastructure or prevalent belief among citizens that Glasgow is, once again, a powerhouse. No longer in an industrial sense, of course, but as the eighth greatest sporting city on earth.
As a slight aside, I would argue that these events have altered the consciousness of the Scottish nation as a whole, not only in a sporting sense. Scotland now recognises that its sons and daughters are capable of shining on the world stage and that our investment in sport has engendered invaluable social impacts, as well as numerous medals and new records.
Aside from partisan praise for Glasgow and Scotland, this anecdote serves a very simple purpose in this wider narrative; it demonstrates the potential created by events governed well.
And as all of those involved in the process of attempting to secure events for their respective municipalities will know, good governance starts from the initiation of the bidding process.
Now, I cite Glasgow as a recent example in which, through rigorous care and procedural best practice, the city has reaped myriad benefits which were successfully sown many years previously. There are many others, however, that do not realise such prosperous outcomes, the reasons for which are both too numerous and complex to discuss herein. The solution for the unpredictable nature of results in an industry where, at least on the pitch/track/court, results are the only thing of any consequence, is, fortunately, less obscure. It is the more transparent governance around the process of event bidding.
Technical evaluations are, in principle, an excellent means towards this end. However, controversy arises when they inform the choice of candidates, rather than underpin their decisions. Of course, factors not taken in to account in the process of a technical evaluation have to be considered, not least political climate. But to those unacquainted with event bidding as it presently stands, the fact that the, apparently, most accomplished bid often loses out in the final reveal, bears further scrutiny. And probably rightly so.
It begs the question over whether there is scope for a standardised stable of tools to be provided to federations and governing bodies to help inform their decisions. Objective criteria, consistently adhered to across all sports and all major events, would help better gauge the competency of competing bids and help to eradicate votes potentially cast on instinctive or misguided judgement.
In support of this line of argument, it has even been reasoned that completed technical evaluations should be published to encourage stricter adherence to their recommendations, or at least to elicit an explanation as to why any departure from the recommendations of a technical evaluation is selected as the chosen course.
Leaving aside any insinuations of wrongdoing, more must also be done to encourage economic transparency in order to eradicate the ramifications experienced by host cities who fail to predict difficulties some way down the line.
At present, a situation often arises where, in an effort to impress, candidates overpromise only to, ultimately, under-deliver. To give one example, the Olympic Games are seemingly beset by a perennial sprint finish, whereby, only aware of shortcomings all-too-late, infrastructure projects are rushed or pared-back by the host city. At best, this erodes confidence in the potentially profound social impacts mega-events should guarantee; at worst, it risks dereliction of duty and gives rise to social unrest.
For those familiar with game theory, the competitive nature of bidding must be of the greatest interest. Lacking definitive criteria to meet, cities and states must simply seek to outshine their nearest competitors. Or, more accurately, seek to outshine what capacity they imagine their nearest competitor may have. The result of this ‘blind bidding’ is a less than ideal outcome for all involved, including the winner.
With more strongly defined and widely publicised benchmarks upon which bids are judged, one can claim with some confidence that capability and credibility, rather cash, will become the foundations upon which successful bids are constructed. The result? Greater likelihood of well-placed investment, improved legacy benefits and less empty stadia as the circus leaves town.
While it is not for me to pass judgement on the current health of global sporting governance, I am more than willing to indicate the current circumstances, while regrettable, present an invaluable opportunity.
In the course of numerous allegations, withdrawal of support and widespread condemnation in recent months, we have learned in no uncertain terms that the forces behind the extraordinary commercial success of sport will no longer endure dubiety. Due to the extent of its own success, all of sport, particularly its governance, is being called to account, and it must reform.
Emboldened by the voice offered by social media and the internet age, the public can no longer be categorised as homogenous factions of brand advocates. Today, the consumer more fluidly elects those it wishes to trust, and brands with a sponsors’ stake in sport will no longer tolerate its flaws.
That being said, it should not be forgotten that, by the same token, the consumer of today is now open to more routes of engagement than ever before thanks to those same technologies. As such, the potential is more people, more enthused by a greater diversity of sporting pursuits. For the general health of the sector, that can only be an exciting prospect. But it can only be realised through change. That change being excellent governance from the ground-up.
And, if we agree with the assertion above that good governance is established from the outset of the bidding process, what better area for us to concentrate those initial efforts towards reform.
This opinion piece was written by Paul Bush OBE, VisitScotland’s Director of Events and Chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland