EventRights’ Professor David McGillivray (university of the West of Scotland) was recently invited to present his research on “Mega events and Public Space” to the International Olympic Academy’s (IOA) 60th International Session for Young Participants, an online version of the annual programme. The session’s special topic was “Olympic Games: Human rights, diversity and inclusion in sport” informed by the focus of the EventRights research project.

Professor McGillivray discussed the value and worth of mega sport events arguing that while most people accept that the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup are wonderful  events, producing iconic historical memories, there is also a significant critical literature that needs to be considered when thinking about the contemporary status and role of these events especially as they impact public space. In the lecture he argued that mega sport events like the Olympic Games generate effects, often significant, on the cities that host them. These effects are differential, depending on the political, economic and social context in which they are hosted. Mega sport events can operate as Trojan Horses, allowing new systems, practices and features to be implemented under the convenient cover of the event. Many of these changes can be linked to the greater securitisation, commercialisation and privatisation of urban public spaces, generating questions about who and what these spaces are for.

He also suggested that mega sport events create the precedent and mandate for public spaces to be transformed into event sites. Even though these events are often justified as exceptional occurrences or once in a lifetime occasions, they provide the foundation for a series of more regular events, with prominent areas of public space repurposed as venue spaces in the post-event era. Whether this trend should be regarded positively or negatively depends on what types of events are staged and who has access to them. Unfortunately, in an era when cities are keen to realize the exchange value of public spaces, and one where there is an imperative to promote public spaces (to increase footfall for businesses), commercially oriented events dominate. This is due to the pressures on the local, entrepreneurial state to generate revenues but is also given fuel by the increasing commercial logic associated with mega sport events themselves. These events have not had a strong record of being planned and delivered with the views of citizens at the forefront of their minds. New measures introduced in order to enable the Games to be hosted have often weakened democratic decision-making processes and that can have longer term implications for how public spaces are used and who makes those decisions. Some actors have more power and influence than others to shape or determine the acceptable uses of public space(s) and those with an inclusive, accessible and consultative vision for public spaces are often overwhelmed by the spectacular, consumption-oriented city.

And yet, he concluded by acknowledging the role that mega sport events like the Olympic Games can play in encouraging social interactions and exchanges in public space and provide the inspiration for better public space provision and management. Accessible events can be utilized to enhance civic engagement, social justice and healthier living. Rather than occupying or appropriating public spaces, these events can actually make spaces more public: they produce public spaces by carving out spaces for social interactions from sites traditionally dominated by motorised traffic and commerce. This can demonstrate to citizens and authorities what their public spaces could be like.

For more information on the research that Professor McGillivray’s lecture was based on, access these recent publications:

McGillivray, D., Duignan, M.B. & Mielke, E (2020) Mega sport events and spatial management: zoning space across Rio’s 2016 Olympic city, Annals of Leisure Research, 23:3, 280-303, DOI: 10.1080/11745398.2019.1607509

Smith, A & McGillivray, D (2020) The long-term implications of mega-events for the provision of urban public spaces, Sport in Society