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The Perils of Playing Games

Ronojoy Sen
November 8, 2010

Contrary to popular fears, the Delhi Commonwealth Games, which ended on October 14, 2010, went off without too many hiccups and were attended by all seventy-one member countries. Though the Commonwealth Games, a competition held every four years for nations of the former British Empire, weren’t the spectacular success that India might have hoped for – to be placed alongside the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa – it wasn’t a disaster either. However, the qualified success of the Games shouldn’t blind us to the many deep-rooted problems associated with holding mega sporting events in India.

In the acrimonious debate on the necessity of holding the Commonwealth Games prior to the event, two broad arguments were made. The first was most forcefully articulated by former sports minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who believed that good money was being wasted on the Games, which could have gone to training children in sports or providing other social services that India desperately needs.

The second argument was a quasi-nationalistic one; that the Games were vital to India’s status as an emerging power. This viewpoint was tied to the argument that the Games were not just about a sporting event but also about upgrading the country’s – or more specifically New Delhi’s – infrastructure. According to this argument, of the total budget, only a fraction was directly spent on the Games. The rest of the money, it was argued, has gone towards projects such as the extension of the Delhi Metro, building flyovers, and modernizing the airport.

Both arguments hold a grain of truth but are ultimately flawed. The first argument is a zero-sum one where development is pitted against an ambitious program or event, such as the Commonwealth Games or India’s space mission, which might not be essential for a country. However, this view entirely ignores the long-run benefits and spin-offs from such mega events. The second argument ignores the necessity of holding sporting spectacles for developing the infrastructure of Indian cities.

The logic of holding mega sporting events in a developing country must eventually boil down to economics. There are some who believe that international sporting events bring little or no benefit to the host countries, and only serve to fill the coffers of international sports bodies such as the IOC or FIFA. Until the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the Olympics had usually been a loss-making venture for the host country. The LA Games sparked a turnaround by running the Olympics as a commercial venture, as well as by using as much existing infrastructure as possible. LA produced a surplus of $232.5 million only eight years after the Montreal Games had run up a debt of $1.5 billion. The LA model is, of course, not applicable to countries like India where the government is neck-deep in organizing international sporting events, and there are multiple agencies involved.

Cost overruns are not unusual for major sporting events, but the extent to which this happened with the Delhi Commonwealth Games was unusual. The budget for the Games approved by the Indian federal cabinet in 2007 was $766 million. But by the time the Games began, it was estimated to have cost upward of $8.5 billion, including money not just spent on the Games, but also on improving Delhi’s infrastructure. Some estimates pegged the cost even higher at $15 billion.

In a situation where infrastructure has to be built from scratch, the budget tends to climb. When the United States hosted the 1994 soccer World Cup, it spent less than $30 million on stadiums; whereas for the 2002 World Cup, South Korea, which was the co-host with Japan, spent $2 billion. This is a challenge confronting developing countries with poor infrastructure that bid for mega sporting events. Though India had hosted the Asian Games in 1982, most of the sporting infrastructure had to be either extensively renovated or new stadiums had to be built for the Commonwealth Games. For instance, the main Games venue, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which was built at a cost of $70 million in 1982, was renovated for $200 million. This is in stark contrast to the next Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where the venue for the opening ceremony, Celtic Park, is in running condition and will only require minor refurbishment before the event begins.

In terms of revenue generation for sporting events, the usual sources are television rights, sponsorship, ticket sales, and merchandising. Though hard statistics are hard to come by, there was a sponsor and spectator apathy to the Delhi Commonwealth Games, partly because the Commonwealth Games, as an event, just does not compare to the Olympics or soccer World Cup in its brand value. Thousands of tickets were unsold and, except for public sector companies, very few were willing to put their money on the Games. The situation changed somewhat during the course of the Games when India began winning several medals, but by then it was too late.

There are, of course, other benefits from mega sporting events that do not immediately show up on the balance sheet. For example, in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, two of the primary goals were reviving East Manchester, which had once been an industrial hub, and increasing tourist flow to the region. Again, for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, one of the main goals was to enhance the city’s image and its tourist potential. The 2012 London Games also aims to develop poorer and crime-ridden parts of the city. By all accounts, no such benefits accrued to New Delhi. Not only did Delhi’s and India’s reputation take a beating in the chaotic run-up to the Games, the tourist footfall was also much less than anticipated. Moreover, investigations have revealed that over one hundred thousand poor families were evicted for Games-related projects and workers were denied proper wages and living conditions.

This leaves us with two other purported benefits from the Commonwealth Games: urban infrastructure and sporting legacy. The first spends a major chunk of the Games budget on revamping Delhi’s infrastructure. Just as with the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, plenty of money was pumped into improving roads, public transportation, the airport, and power generation. However, the question is whether or not a Games-driven development of a city is the most efficient. As a series of government audits and media investigations have shown, in the rush to get Delhi ready for the Games, there has been little accountability of how and where the funds were spent. Over the last year, however, the Indian government’s watchdog agencies – the Central Vigilance Commission and the Comptroller and Audit General of India – as well as the media raised uncomfortable questions about the way contracts were handed out, the tardy monitoring of construction work, and the revenue generation model. One of the most widely reported instances of corruption were toilet rolls billed at $88 each.

As for a sporting legacy, the 1982 Asian Games are a sobering example of how little mega events can go towards fostering and improving sports. Much of the sporting infrastructure was left in a state of disrepair once the Asian Games were over. There have been many instances in Olympic host cities – not just in India – where stadiums have lied vacant once the Games ended. More tellingly, there was no significant improvement in India’s sporting performances in the immediate aftermath of the Asian Games.

It is heartening that in the euphoria following the completion of the Commonwealth Games, the government has not forgotten the corruption and mismanagement charges leveled against the Games organizing committee and other government agencies. A committee headed by a senior bureaucrat is investigating the irregularities and is expected to submit a report by January 2011. While this exercise is essential to identify those responsible for corruption, the larger lesson is that mega sporting events are not worth the trouble in countries like India. This is something that must not be forgotten when India talks of bidding for bigger prizes like the Olympics.

Ronojoy Sen is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.He can be reached at


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