As the world looks beyond Tokyo2020, how do we promote integrity in Mega Sport Events and the infrastructure built to serve them?

As attention turns to the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Qatar World Cup, EAP’s Senior Policy & Research Adviser, Maria da Graça Prado, explores how we can use the lessons of the past to strengthen integrity in future Mega Sport Event infrastructure delivery.

The Tokyo Olympic Games finished with athletes breaking records across the world of sports. But beyond the competition, a more concerning record was also broken: Tokyo2020 is now the most expensive Summer Olympic Games on record. The current figure – officially calculated at US $15.4 billion– is almost triple that forecast during the Game’s bidding stage, and Japanese audit authorities believe total spending could exceed US $ 20 billion. Based on the average cost of construction in Japan, the current bill for Tokyo2020 is the equivalent of building 1,200 schools or 300 300-bed hospitals. And beyond cost overruns, Tokyo2020 also fell foul of allegations of corruption, the death of construction workers due to labour conditions and an opaque decision-making structure that left the public as uninformed spectators.

It is true that Tokyo2020 was delivered in unprecedented circumstances and suffered from unanticipated costs and delays associated with the pandemic. But Covid or no Covid, this Olympic Games bears many of the marks long associated with the delivery of Mega Sport Event (MSE) infrastructure: a lack of transparency in the way public money is spent, abusive labour practices during the construction stages and poor accountability to the taxpayer and the public in general.

We recently put forward key recommendations to help overcome these pitfalls in the delivery of MSE infrastructure, namely poor labour conditions, corruption risks and a lack of social accountability. We focused on what has worked elsewhere in the infrastructure sector and what could be realistically applied in complex sports events. In the context of Tokyo2020, there are some key areas where these recommendations are particularly pertinent.

Recurring issues in MSE infrastructure delivery

To improve labour conditions, key recommendations included the need for efficient health and safety monitoring on construction sites so that sports events don’t come at the cost of workers’ lives and health. To ensure workers are paid in full and on time, payment mechanisms could include wage protection systems, escrow accounts and workers’ funds.

Meanwhile, channels to ensure transparency around construction costs can help minimise the risk of corruption in MSE infrastructure delivery. Data standards such as the Open Contracting for Infrastructure Data Standard (OC4IDS) can help identify and manage integrity risks in infrastructure contracting, and help civil society and the media to keep track of taxpayer’s money, easily spotting red flags during implementation.

There’s an apparent transparency over recent Games, with the bid books being public, and the cost estimate, and the final accounting also being public. But once you start looking into the individual Games, it is difficult to really find apples for apples comparisons between what goes in the bid books and what is given in the final accounts. You don’t quite know how the money was accounted for

Professor Alexander Budzier Oxford Saïd Business School

In order to increase accountability, is essential that transparency mechanisms also shine a light on the way sports organisations operate. As duty bearers to the public, these organisations should abide by broad disclosure obligations regardless of where in the world they are seated and how they are legally established (as non-profits or otherwise). Ensuring adequate disclosure of information will increase visibility on internal operational issues within these organisations, such as salaries and financial compensation paid to staff and management teams.

Looking to the future: An opportunity to change the game

Some of our recommendations have made it into the C20 Policy Pack 2021. This is a first step towards the start of a long over-due dialogue around the way infrastructure is delivered in the context of MSEs. Our research shows that history offers important lessons, and it is essential to learn from them to ensure future events do not produce the same patterns of exploitation, corruption and lack of accountability.

As public attention moves to the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Qatar World Cup, both planned for 2022, embedding greater transparency and accountability is key to ensuring a positive legacy is left by MSEs and the infrastructure built to serve them.