Mega-Sporting Events

Restoring the Social Licence of Mega-Sporting Events

Commentary, 18 January 2016

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

Those who lead these organizations are under increasing pressure to reform and rebuild public trust in sport – in other words, to regain a “social licence” in today’s more transparent and demanding environment.

Major sports bodies face a growing crisis of legitimacy.  Earlier this month, world football’s governing body FIFA,dismissed its secretary general for alleged involvement in profiting from the sale of World Cup tickets. A day later, the investigation into doping within Russian athletics concluded that officials at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) "could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in athletics".

The term “social licence” originated in the mining sector, where operations can be blocked by local communities if they lose their trust, consent and legitimacy. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, now often uses the term in an effort to restore faith in financial markets. Given the challenges that several of the major sports bodies have faced over the last 18 months, a case can be made that they too have lost much of their social licence. When asked (and they are often not asked), local governments are increasingly deciding to withdraw from bids to host major sporting events because of lack of trust and a perceived lack of value in hosting them. Of course, some countries do not ask local populations for their opinion – but is this the destiny for mega-sporting events, to be hosted only by non-democratic nations?

These are but the most recent in a long line of serious challenges facing major sport governing bodies. Those who lead these organizations are under increasing pressure to reform and rebuild public trust in sport – in other words, to regain a “social licence” in today’s more transparent and demanding environment. Are they up to the task? What is needed to ensure greater accountability and more responsible actions in the world of sport? 

There are early signs that reform efforts are finally underway. For example, the Olympic Agenda 2020 reform package – which among other things promises to open the door to greater stakeholder engagement, and to explore ways of reducing costs associated with bidding to host the Olympics – is a notable step forward.

But steps taken thus far are proving far from sufficient. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has yet to win back the trust of potential host communities so crucial in ensuring successful games. In October 2014, Oslo withdrew from the race to host the 2022 Winter Olympics after authorities concluded they could not garner public support. Since then both Boston and Hamburg have both withdrawn from their bids to host the Summer 2024 Olympic Games.

What do these examples have in common?

For Oslo and Hamburg, the failure to carry public support appears to have been directly linked to concerns over bureaucratic hurdles and expenses associated with hosting the events. In Boston's case, it may in part be a legacy of mistrust in the local political landscape associated with delays and cost overruns (reportedly in the region of 190%) on the “Big Dig” – a major urban tunnel project. The fact that sports bodies such as the IAAF, FIFA and IOC have lost or are losing public trust does not help the case.

So what is needed to rebuild the social licence of such events?

First, communities must be consulted meaningfully before bids are submitted. This means building a clear case for how local communities, including those most impacted by the events, will benefit. Second, sports bodies must demand of host cities and nations that all steps will be taken at every stage of the event – from construction forward - to avoid the deaths and abuses of human rights seen at many previous events. They must also build their own systems to ensure that such requirements are actually implemented and have effective accountability mechanisms in place when problems do occur.

Late last year, the Sport and Rights Alliance (a coalition of civil society organisations, trade unions that represent the athletes themselves, as well as the workers that build stadiums) expressed its shock that even the reformed IOC Host City Contracts continue to omit any explicit reference to internationally recognised human rights.

Part of the way forward lies in providing expert advice and capacity to those involved in staging major events. A wide range of stakeholders came together late in 2015 to start discussions on what is needed, including the potential for a new impartial body to assist host cities, governments, sponsors, civil society and trade unions alike in ensuring that all future bids accord to minimum expectations relating to social and environmental impacts.

Forthcoming events, such as the Rio 2016 Olympics, Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup, Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Qatar 2022 World Cup and Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are just some of the major events that must demonstrate responsible event preparation, delivery and legacy. The challenges of doing so are enormous but securing social license – and a sustainable future for global sport - demands nothing less.

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