London and Rio have a unique opportunity for social change
Ask anyone in Vancouver, Sydney or Salt Lake City. When their city won the bid to host the Olympic Games, their neighbourhoods, transit and landscapes got a major facelift within a matter of years. But beyond the shiny surface, the changes can touch the social dynamics of the host city, according to UBC researcher Rob VanWynsberghe.
“Unlike any other event, sporting mega-events can be a force for change,” says the assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies at UBC. “Entire social policies can be reworked in the name of hosting. In almost no other situation are such massive resources dedicated to transforming a city.”
VanWynsberghe investigates how sporting events, like the Olympics, World Cup and Pan American Games, can be leveraged to radically change how cities work.
A member of UBC’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability, VanWynsberghe says these events provide cities with the unique opportunity to work on deep social issues. With the world’s attention focused on them, it is a great time to try new ways of tackling problems.
VanWynsberghe is leading a study to measure the overall impact of the 2010 Games, known as the Olympic Games Impact (OGI) study. Developed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the OGI offers a standardized method of monitoring, measuring and reporting on the social, economics and cultural impact of hosting the Games. All Olympic organizing committees are now contractually required to undertake this study.
VanWynsberghe thinks one of the legacies of the 2010 Winter Games may turn out to be improved developments in Aboriginal relations in the province of British Columbia. The Olympics featured the inclusion of First Nations in organizing the Games, a priceless spotlight on aboriginal culture during the opening ceremonies, an attractive and prominent Aboriginal Pavilion, and economic development opportunities.
“The 2010 Games still provide a way to do things differently in the future,” he says. “More generally, hosting an event like this gives you the opportunity to ask ‘what is a major social issue and how can changing it now be the source of a legacy?’”
Looking ahead to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, VanWynsberghe notes organizers are dedicating unprecedented efforts to promote physical activity, perhaps because London, like many other cities, is dealing with a rising tide of obesity.
But VanWynsberghe thinks the London Games could be used to address deeper problems.
“If they focus on ethnic and racial tensions in the city, London could flip things around and make their Games a celebration of multiculturalism. They could make London a destination for being the most multicultural city in the world.”
In November, the UBC Centre for Sport and Sustainability hosted a conference on the impact of sporting mega-events, bringing together leading international scholars. They concur that hosting the Games in Vancouver and London is one thing. Hosting them in a developing country like Brazil–host to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games–is an entirely different matter.
“The approach to transforming a city like Rio is very different than what we saw in Vancouver or in 1996 in Atlanta,” VanWynsberghe says. “The field is generally filled with case studies from North America, Europe and Australia.”
“We need to compare and contrast these cases with African, South American and Asian ones to understand the full range of leveraging possibilities that may extend beyond the host city to include international goals, such as sustainability, poverty reduction, literacy, combatting racism, and stopping war.”