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Mega-events: national pride or city branding?

Mega-events such as the football world cup, the Olympic Games and World Expositions are highly mediatized and reach a global audience. They have become major tools for cities to display their singularity and to compete on the global stage.

Mega-events emerged in the 19th century, in the context of the industrial revolution and have been associated with the rise of modernity. The first World Exposition was the “Great Exhibition” of London in 1851. The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896. On the one hand, mega-events aimed at celebrating universal values such as excellence, respect, and friendship for the Olympics or progress and innovation for the Universal Expositions. On the other hand, the nations organising them wished to demonstrate their economic and political power. This materialised through innovative buildings, which have remained important monuments, like the Eiffel Tower built for the Paris International Exposition in 1889. But, mega-events were also used to display imperialism such as the 1931 colonial exhibition in Paris that left a contested heritage and whose main building was turned into the National Museum of the History of Immigration in 2012.

Thus, until the second half of the 20th century, the city is rather a showcase of modernity than an actor in mega-events strategies. It is only later on that cities started to compete for organizing such events in order to increase their attractiveness. Numerous cities in the world have mobilized their energies to host mega-events. Their first motivation is economic impacts: mega-events are argued to yield high returns on investments by attracting tourists and enhancing cities’ images. Their second motivation is to accelerate urban transformations. The year of a mega-event often constitutes the deadline for a number of major redevelopment projects, new infrastructure, new cultural and sport facilities. For example, Beijing invested 26.5 billion dollars in transport infrastructure for the year of the Olympics in 2008, including highways, airports, and public transportation. Such a deadline constrains urban stakeholders to deliver these projects quickly and efficiently.

Mega-events stage a competition between different candidate cities that have to propose the most compelling project to convince a selection committee: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the Olympics, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) for the football world cup or the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) for World Expositions. This often leads to gigantic and inflationary budgets. In 2005, when London was selected to host the Olympics for the year 2012, the initial budget planned amounted to 3.8 billion euros. In the end, 13 billion euros were spent for the event and related infrastructure.

Today, the former concentration of mega-events in Europe and the United States has declined. In 1988, South Korea, which had undergone a miraculous development over the previous decades, was able to display its achievements on the world stage by hosting the Olympic Games in Seoul. The year 2010 was particularly revealing of this shift as three major mega-events took place in the so-called BRICS countries: the Shanghai Expo, the New Delhi Commonwealth Games and the South African football world cup. Thus, the use of mega-events as an instrument of national pride has not disappeared. In fact, emerging countries combine urban branding and nation branding. China offers a clear example of this trend, with the famous Stadium by Herzog and De Meuron that symbolized the 2008 Olympics, the Shanghai Expo that displayed urban innovations from all around the world, and the future Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. Gulf countries also offer a good example, with the World Exposition that will take place in 2020 in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and the 2022 Football World Cup in Doha, Qatar. These projects not only aim at asserting the rising soft power of these nations, they are also stepping points for the planning of brand new urban areas.

In this general overview of the way cities use mega-events, we have mainly emphasized the positive impacts. Nevertheless, such projects can be quite contested. The competition for the 2024 edition has seen the citizens of four cities rising to interrupt the application process: in Boston, Hamburg, Rome, and Budapest. Olympic projects are often criticized because of their high costs and also because they lead to the construction of oversized infrastructures that do not correspond to the actual needs of the population.

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Are Olympic projects always desirable? Under which conditions?

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This article is from the free online course:

Cultural Heritage and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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