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After the ball is over

By Hans Westerbeek - posted Friday, 13 August 2010

The escalating corruption scandal engulfing Delhi's Commonwealth Games is deeply disappointing and yet all too familiar. Sadly, the wilful determination to stage large sporting events at huge cost to the public purse continues despite the evidence that it is extremely difficult to deliver lasting returns for host cities. If the dark shadow the allegations of kickbacks have cast on the event were not enough, Delhi's problems have been compounded because of poor planning.

The Games organisers have failed to grasp that what is left behind - the event legacy - is just as important as the event itself. As marquee sporting events the world over have discovered, more often than not what remains after the athletes have returned is an unwanted legacy - white elephant sporting facilities.

Elephants are protected, but white elephants are physical legacies that major sporting events cannot drive into extinction. The Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympic Games - where expensive and colossal facilities have been left to become ghost sites - are painful reminders that the planning of event legacies is a strategic exercise starting well before a successful bid. Only in 2010 is Sydney Olympic Park turning its fortunes around. This cannot be said about Athens or even Beijing. But it needs to be noted that these are just the physical infrastructure legacies. The heritage that sporting events can offer to local citizens is potentially much richer than bricks and mortar.


Planning for a legacy is a challenging long-term strategic process. One international event will not change the (Indian) landscape forever. On its website the Delhi Organising Committee says that "hosting a sporting event at a scale such as the Commonwealth Games is a matter of international prestige for the country, and is bound to boost brand India". So what is brand India? And how can the Games make a contribution to what is to be the key brand proposition of the country, and also of the city of Delhi? Commonwealth Games of moderate quality can potentially destroy whatever brand equity has been built. High quality organisation is expected, and falling short of the mark is punished with damage to reputation and goodwill. If terrorists' threats to attack international sporting events on Indian soil become a reality the human and brand damage could be immeasurable.

It is easy to argue, as the website does, that "improved infrastructure and appearance of the host city, and global media exposure will serve to transform the image of the city". Unfortunately it takes a lot more than a few new buildings and a television camera to transform a city, especially when progress reports from Delhi reveal that all building projects remain behind schedule, and that monsoon rains have transformed the city into a mud pool, flooding the unfinished Games venues.

Without a pragmatic vision for a country, a region or a city, there cannot be a legacy plan for an event. Long-term urban and social planning for a destination needs to coincide with long-term planning of capacity building. Capacity means community sport infrastructure and professionally educated coaches and managers. Attracting and hosting a major sporting event is merely a small part of this process.

One event will never turn a country or a city around. Legacy planning involves drawing a roadmap towards destination prominence. Along this route - one travelled over time - there must be markers indicating the plan is on track. Does Delhi offer a unique position in competitive global city marketing and does the position offer a sustainable competitive advantage? Only once clear answers to these questions can be provided can the management of legacy planning start.

It has been said that the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games were the start of the ascendance of Melbourne as the sporting capital of the world. The Melbourne Cricket Ground, even in those days seating about 100,000 people, was transformed into the Olympic Stadium and just across the road new facilities including the Olympic Pool were built. All this occurred in the heart of the city with direct access to an elaborate train and tram network.

Today Melbourne's sporting precinct includes the modernised MCG and Melbourne Park - home of the Australian Open - with venues seating more than 40,000 spectators. Add to this a range of other facilities throughout the city and we have a metropolis with an event infrastructure second to none.


Melbourne started by hosting an Olympic party in 1956, realising later that by hosting multiple parties the city could be transformed. The Victorian Government is well advanced in building one of the strongest event-city brands in the world. The question for the Games in Delhi is whether it can (or even should) replicate Melbourne's successful major events strategy.

The Commonwealth Games remain India's opportunity to make a positive and powerful statement to the world. A well-organised Games will elevate perceptions about India and Delhi. A poorly organised Games will achieve the opposite and create more damage than any Indian politician could have predicted.

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About the Author

Hans Westerbeek is Professor of Sport Business and Director of the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University.

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