The Olympic rings in Budapest, one of several cities to abort its Olympic bid–Photo by Jose Manuel Garcia

By Aaron Beacom

On November 29, 2015, following a referendum in which citizens of Hamburg, Germany, registered their opposition to hosting the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Hamburg withdrew its bid. Less than a year later, the Italian Olympic Committee joined Hamburg and officially withdrew its Rome 2024 bid.2 And on February 22, 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced the withdrawal of Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Games. Reasons given for these withdrawals were wide-ranging and included escalating costs, doubts over funding, lack of certainty over legacy benefits, concern about corruption within sports organizations, and anxiety over security. 

Two bids now remain to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games—Los Angeles (chosen after the U.S. Olympic Committee withdrew Boston as the bid city because it felt that “resistance from local residents was too great to overcome3) and Paris. The initial figure of five cities bidding for the 2024 Games contrasts starkly with the 11 cities that entered the bidding process for the 2004 Summer Olympics, the first Games to implement a revised two-stage application process. Similar difficulties were evidenced in relation to the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, with the number of cities bidding for the 2022 Winter Games also reduced to two—Almaty, the former capital city of Kazakhstan, and the eventual winner, Beijing—from an initial six in the wake of Oslo’s decision to withdraw in October 2014, following similar decisions from Stockholm, Lviv, and Krakow. Whatever the reasons, public appetite for such projects appears to be draining away. 

There is a long history of debate relating to the capacity of international sporting events to deliver a range of benefits—including diplomatic benefits—to the host city and nation.4 Nauright (2013), while voicing concerns regarding the “subversion of local community interests and democratic practices” commented in this journal that mega-events have “become high demand focal points that have symbolic value well beyond the results on the fields of sporting competition.”5 There is much to support contentions regarding the power of sport to contribute to national and municipal development. The bid for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was built around the promotion of tolerance, multi-culturalism, and diversity, underpinning the idea of London as an open “world city.”6 In addition to enhanced infrastructure and economic regeneration, the communication of these core messages internationally became part of the legacy narrative associated with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.7 Yet despite claims regarding both “hard” legacy benefits (for example, infrastructure improvements) and “soft” legacy benefits (for example, enhanced place branding, commonly associated with public diplomacy), momentum appears to be moving away from the mega-event as a conduit for development, whether at the national or the local level. 

The experience of hosting the most recent Summer Olympic Games provides little by way of comfort. To the consternation of Brazilian politicians and diplomats, global media coverage focused on a range of significant operational challenges, including security problems relating to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Domestic and international media coverage of protesting citizens, police officers on strike, fears about the Zika virus, doping by Russian athletes, and the threatened loss of funding for Paralympic events undermined efforts by the Brazilian authorities to use the Games as an opportunity to project a positive image of Brazil and Rio on the international stage.8 Given the long-standing association of such events with public diplomacy, these developments are clearly of relevance to scholars seeking to understand the trajectory of the diplomatic process.

The question of what constitutes the parameters of public diplomacy and how it relates to the subject of place branding inevitably arises in such discussions, but it is not the purpose of this short article to engage at length with this conceptual debate.9 While in some cases writers address issues that differentiate between place branding and public diplomacy (for example, the range of actors engaged in the process and the rationale for their engagement), in others the focus is on shared concerns with image promotion as the ultimate goal.10 For the purposes of this paper, the concerns of public diplomacy in attempting to directly shape the opinion of “publics” toward a political entity involves engagement with a range of activities that address the central concern of enhancing image; in particular, the image of a city. Enter the mega-sporting event as an aspect of public diplomacy. 

The role of the city in regional and international politics has a long history, from the influence of Greek city-states in shaping regional relations during the ascendancy of ancient Greek civilization to the role of Italian city-states as a feature of the Renaissance period.11 More recently, European and North American cities have begun asserting themselves as entities in international relations, developing as hubs for industrialization, trade, and technological advancement. The convergence of a number of wider geopolitical trends—namely globalization—from the 1980s onwards caused the acceleration of regional integration and the decentralization process. Martins (2004) argues that these forces weaken the state and enhance the potential for other actors to engage in the international arena.12 He identifies the significance of European institutions, in particular the Council of Europe, in helping to create the institutional and legislative framework within which cities could develop as entities distinct from states. One example of this is the European Charter of Local Self Government, a treaty that promoted political and financial autonomy for local authorities.13 Martins (2004) argues that these shifts are reflected in attempts by cities to “re-write their history free from states by carrying out their own strategies to enhance their competitive advantage,” and it is against this backdrop that hosting mega-events “emerged as a significant focus of global inter-urban competition.” Notwithstanding debate about the extent to which tangible material legacies, such as infrastructure improvements and new venues, could be realized through hosting mega-events, such as the Olympic Games, cities hoped to enhance their prominence as international actors in their own right. Yet the city itself is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that may be constituted politically and economically in a variety of ways, which is reflected in its engagement with such events. The dynamics of the bidding process and related diplomatic discourse will, for example, be influenced by the relationship between central and local governments. At the same time, their structure will reflect their approach to the bid. For example, in relation to London, the footprint of the 2012 Games bid stretched across five metropolitan boroughs, and underlines the point that cities are much more than unitary political entities. Each of these boroughs engaged in developing plans to maximise the impact of the Games. 

The extensive support infrastructure of the Games also requires planning as part of the bidding process. A network of Pre-Games Training Camps (PGTCs) are one of the few opportunities to take the Games beyond the confines of the host city and showcase a range of regional towns and cities. Surprisingly little research has taken place in relation to this area. Cooper, De Lacy, and Jago (2006) consider this in the context of leveraging benefits from the hosting process through exploitation from a “destination marketing” perspective.14 One key aspect of the London 2012 bid was the commitment to develop a network of PGTCs throughout the UK, with a financial incentive to base teams in the UK in the lead-up to the Games. This was not just about providing enhanced support for Olympic and Paralympic teams arriving in the UK It also, through encouraging the development of camps beyond London and its immediate environs, heightened regional interest and linked the process to the nationwide “legacy agenda” which was central to the bid rationale. At the same time, the role of the state remains central to the bid process despite the fact that the Olympic Charter identifies the city as the organization that must submit the bid, and does not formally require the state in question to underwrite the bid. 15  Beyond the economic realities of hosting such an event, the state is the only institution with the capability to mobilise and to coordinate the resources necessary to ensure appropriate conditions of security are met. The state also, through its diplomatic infrastructure and extensive networks based on membership in international organizations, has lobbying power at the international level, which is critical to the bidding process. 

The Olympic Games as a microcosm of international society reflects geopolitical fault lines (through boycotts and other forms of sanctions), the rise and decline of actors operating in the international arena (including the emergence and disappearance of states, and the increasing influence of a range of transnational and global non-state actors), and shifts in the international policy agenda (for example, through the enhanced focus on the environmental agenda and the accommodation by the IOC, in conjunction with the UN, of athletes with refugee status). Given the challenges facing cities in an uncertain global economic environment, with new security realities and the need to balance municipal with national and regional interests, it is unsurprising that their relationship with the mega-event is in transition. The influence of cities has become as much associated with the rejection of proposals to bid for the Olympic and Paralympic Games—at times in defiance of national sentiment—as with any other aspect of the Games cycle. In this, the impact of civil society groups articulating opposition through independent referenda and other forms of protest, while mobilising social media as a route to communicating opposition, should not be underestimated. 

At the same time, for cities wishing to engage sport as part of their promotional strategies, there are alternatives, such as international (as opposed to mega) sporting events that present many of the benefits without the same level of financial and other risks. In the context of the UK, the Commonwealth Games of 2002, which took place in Manchester, were widely held as contributing significantly to the rejuvenation of that city and the greater Manchester-Merseyside region as it grappled with a range of post-industrial challenges. The Glasgow Commonwealth Games of 2014 were similarly credited with making a significant contribution to the strategic development of the city and region, and for some, fed into calls for more regional autonomy. The non-departmental public body UK Sport’s “Gold Event Series,” while linked to a wider attempt to secure a legacy from London 2012, supported (and in some contexts resourced) the relevant sports bodies together with municipal authorities to secure a number of regional and international sporting events across the UK between 2013 and 2019.16 

Finally, the IOC is unsurprisingly going through a period of soul-searching itself. As a significant player in international relations (the IOC has observer status at the UN) it has its own concerns regarding the capacity to engage in successful diplomacy as a means of effective interest representation. This process of review includes a re-assessment of the bidding process that has left it so exposed in recent years—including awarding the 2024 and 2028 Games simultaneously, revisiting the formal two-stage bidding process (originally aimed at challenging corruption), and encouraging a more open dialogue with potential bidders.17 Perhaps from this will emerge greater efforts by the IOC to respond directly to the concerns of citizens in cities embarking on the bid journey, something lacking at present.18 One issue is clear: the reduced engagement of cities in the process of bidding for the Olympic and Paralympic Games constitutes a significant challenge for all actors who promote the Games as conduits for development.


1 Background material for this article was drawn from – Beacom A. 2012a. ‘Sport in The City’: Sub-state diplomacy and the Olympic Bid’ in: Harris S., Adams A., Bell B., Mackintosh C. Sport for Sports Sake: Theoretical and practical insights into sports development. LSA Publication No.117. Eastbourne, Leisure Studies Association.

2 This decision was initially made public by the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, on September 21 – Raggi had long held concerns about the indebted city acting as host.

3 Seelye, K. 27 July 2015. ‘Boston’s Bid for Summer Olympics is Terminated’. New York Times.

4 For example, see Gold, J. & Gold, M. (2017) Olympic Cities: City Olympics, Planning and the World’s Games 1896-2020 (3rd ed).London: Routledge.

5 Nauright, J. 2013. ‘Selling Nations to the World Through Sports: Mega-events and nation branding as global diplomacy’. Public Diplomacy Magazine (Winter 2013) 22-27.

6 Beacom, A. 2012d. International Diplomacy and the Olympic Movement: the new mediators. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

7 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. February 2011. ‘FCO and Public Diplomacy: The Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012’ – Second report of session 2010-2011.

8 Beacom A., Brittain I. (May 2016) ‘Public Diplomacy and the IPC: reconciling the roles of disability advocate and sports regulator’, Diplomacy and Statecraft.

9 These concepts are explored extensively through for example,

Waeraas, A., Bjorna, H. and Moldenaes T. (2014) “Place, organization, democracy: Three strategies for municipal branding” Public Management Review. 17:9  DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2014.906965

Anholt S. (2010) Editorial Definitions of place branding – Working towards a resolution Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2010) 6, 1–10. doi:10.1057/pb.2010.3

Also see: Gertner, D. (6 July 2011) ‘Unfolding and Configuring 2 Decades of Research and Publication on Place Marketing and Place Branding’. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. 7:91.

10   Szondi, G. (October 2008) Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding: Conceptual Similarities and Differences. Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ ISSN 1569-2981

11 Pluijm, Rogier van der. 2007.‘City Diplomacy: The Expanding Role of Cities in International Politics’, Clingendael Diplomacy Papers No. 10. The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

12 Martins, L. (July 2004). Bidding for the Olympics, a Local Affair? Lessons Learned from the Paris and Madrid 2012 Olympic bids. City Futures Conference. Chicago: Chicago University College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.

13 European Charter of Local Self-Government. (October 15, 1985). Council of Europe. European Treaty Series, no. 122. 

14   Cooper, De Lacy and Jago (eds),  (2006) Leveraging A Mega Event When Not the Host City: Lessons from Pre-Olympic Training. Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Center

ISBN 1 902704 32 9.

15 While it has become custom and practice for states to underwrite the enormous financial commitment contingent with an Olympic bid, this is not necessarily required according to the Olympic Charter. The requirement is rather, that ‘Each candidate city should provide financial guarantees as required by the IOC Executive Board, which will determine whether such guarantees shall be issued by the city itself, or by other competent local, regional or national public authorities, or by any third parties’. (IOC Olympic Charter, 2015, bye-law to Rule 33).

16 UK Sport (14 November 2012) ‘Sports Gold Event Series to Create a Stage to Inspire Games Legacy’.

17 BBC News. 17 March 2017. ‘IOC May Award both 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games in September’.\

18 Hiller, H. and Wanner, R. (2017) ‘Public Opinion in Olympic Cities: From bidding to retrospection’. Urban Affairs Review. DOI: 10.1177/1078087416684036.

Aaron Beacom is a reader in Sport and International Relations at University of St. Mark and St. John, Plymouth Devon UK. He holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Exeter. He is the author of International Diplomacy and the Olympic Games (2012) and co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Paralympic Studies (publication due later this year) and has published a number of journal articles in this area. He was Co-Chair of the South West Regional Pre-games Training Camp Committee in lead up to London Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012 and has twice sat on the IOC panel for evaluating bids to the Advanced Olympic Research Fund.