The final score? Politics, international relations and the World Cup

As the World Cup in Brazil comes to an end, many will be asking ‘was it worth it?’.

Our colleague Suzanne Dowse, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sport Science, Tourism and Leisure, has been awarded a PhD with no corrections for her study into the Political and International Relations Dimensions of Mega Sport Events. Her study explores the domestic and foreign policy ambitions held for the 2010 World Cup, and the potential for events to help us understand the changing nature of International Relations.

Her study of South Africa’s experience of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup showed that although mega sport events provide opportunities to achieve policy goals, like image change and accelerated development, the outcomes generally fall short of expectations and are vulnerable to the split priorities of national and local government.

Suzanne explained: “There was a great deal of political value attached to the symbolic message perceived in obtaining such a prestigious event and delivering it successfully. However, while this aligned with existing policy ambitions to transform the way South Africa engaged with international and regional political communities, in practice, it also meant that the event and meeting the terms of agreements made with FIFA were prioritised above domestic goals like development. Consequently when a choice had to be made it was the social ambitions that were generally sacrificed.

Suzanne continued: “Arguably this should be expected given the reputational damage that may occur if the event is perceived to be poorly delivered. Yet, the reality is that the need to gain popular support for the public investment involved leads to a generally over-optimistic presentation of events to the public as a panacea for a wide range of social and economic problems. So an inability to deliver on promises made is almost built into the event process.

“The findings of this study suggest that this fundamental disadvantage is also compounded by the fact that the political decision to endorse hosting opportunities is not taken by those that have to deliver the event obtained. This means that often stakeholders at all levels may completely misunderstand what they are signing up for in terms of the resource and operational requirements involved and how they will be affected by the contractual obligations agreed. The result is that those charged with delivering the event at the local level are unlikely to have the capacity to achieve their priorities for the event”.

However, although these issues made it very difficult to maximise or sustain event-led opportunities, South Africa did obtain some positive outcomes from the 2010 experience. For example, through the World Cup images of South African capacity, capability and cohesion were projected globally and although the domestic situation is not fully aligned, the hosting process was perceived as moving the country towards this aspired vision.

Stakeholders involved in delivering the event also described how the experience had provided valuable lessons that could be used to improve public service delivery going forward. They also highlighted how the obvious success of the event had built much needed confidence within public sector organisations that have struggled to respond to the large-scale restructure that followed democratisation in 1994 and, as a result, have been unable to meet popular expectations for public service provision.


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