Nations, Mega-events, and International Culture

Maurice Roche. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

‘Mega-events’ are specially constructed and staged large-scale international cultural and sport events. They are short-term events with often significant long-term pre-event and post-event impacts on the host nation across a range of dimensions of national society, particularly cultural but also political and economic dimensions. Since the late nineteenth century, when they first made their appearance, the two main mega-event genres have been expos and great international sport events. The paradigm of the latter has been the Olympic Games, but in the post-war period this was joined by the football World Cup international championship event. The historical, social and political landscape of nations and of international relations in which mega-events have occurred since their first appearance has evidently undergone seismic shifts and transformations over time. Nevertheless, although they are relatively fragile and have been periodically vulnerable to ideological forces, mega-events seem to have established an enduring presence, popularity and memorability in modern society.

The interest of national and international publics in mega-events and of nation-states in staging them appears to be even greater now at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it was at the beginning of the twentieth, as we observe later in the chapter. For instance the ‘Millennium’ year of 2000 saw the staging of a highly successful Olympic Games in Sydney, an Expo in Hanover and the controversial sub-expo-type national ‘Millennium Experience’ exhibition in London. In addition, around the Millennium year highly popular football World Cup events were held in France in 1998 and, uniquely jointly, in Japan and Korea in 2002.1 Nations’ continuing interests in the twenty-first century in attempting to use mega-events to provide an international or global media platform for projecting positive images are evident in such phenomena as the continuing intensity of the bidding competitions to win the right to the host the Olympic Games and the football World Cup. It is also evident in, on the one hand, the political troubles the Greek nation went through as a result of preparing for the 2004 Athens Olympics and, on the other hand, the scale of the economic effort China is putting into preparing Beijing and its 2008 Olympics to operate both as a ‘global village’ for the event and also as a ‘world stage’ for the Chinese state and nation.

The main aim of this chapter is to introduce and map some of the general relationships between nations and mega-events. The discussion proceeds in three stages. The first section outlines some of the framework and concepts needed to address the relationship between international mega-events and nations. These include concepts of nation-states, of mega-events and of the main periods of development in modernity since the mid-nineteenth century which provide the social context for both phenomena. The second section focuses on the key mega-event genre of the Olympic Games, and with particular reference to the ‘short twentieth century’ period, that is, starting from the end of World War I, through to the late twentieth century. In this period particularly important in understanding the role of mega-events is not only nationalism but also the connection between the latter on the one hand and both idealistic and aggressive (‘super-nationalist’) versions of internationalism on the other. Aggressive ‘super-nationalism’ was particularly exemplified in fascist and communist states and their nationalist and internationalist ideologies, and the Olympic Games mega-event came to be seen as a useful if transient international ‘theatre’ for the display of both super-nationalist as well as peaceful internationalist ideals and ideologies. The third section addresses the contemporary period of ‘late modernity’ and considers recent and current relationships between nations and mega-events. The staging of multiple international mega-events, or the aspiration to do so, has now become a common strategy for many nations and their major cities around the world. This is illustrated with particular reference to the new South Africa’s use of mega-events in its contemporary nation-building.

Understanding the Development of Mega-Events and Nations in Modernity

To explore the relation between mega-events and nations over time some of their basic relevant features need to be indicated in this section, together with a sketch of the main stages of societal development in modernity (for fuller conceptualization of mega-events and national history see Roche 2000 and 2006, respectively). The periodization is applied to a review of the national and international role of international sports mega-events, in particular the Olympics, over the course of the twentieth century, in the rest of the chapter.

Mega-events are directly or indirectly the product of nation-states which can be said to host them and which often use them to promote nationalism. However, even from a national perspective states are not the only actors to be con sidered. National ‘civil societies’ and ‘publics’ can also be relevant actors in campaigns for mega-events, in the success or otherwise of their staging, and in their long-term impacts. In addition there is the distinction between ‘states’ and ‘nations’ which may or may not be institutionalized in states. For instance, it might be argued that the Catalans and Quebecois are ‘stateless nations’ incorporated within the states of Spain and Canada, and that this distinction is relevant to understanding the nature of mega-events such as the 1976 and 1992 Olympic Games mega-events, which were staged in Montreal and Barcelona respectively.

Mega-events are at the same time both national and also international social phenomena. From a sociological perspective international mega-events are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of an ecology of events and event sites which typically characterize nation-states, their national cultures and collective cultural identities. Many of these events may be popular ‘heritage’ events such as traditional festivals and/or religious rituals which derive from pre-modern periods. No doubt many are sustained currently to serve nations’ touristic images and industries. However, they may also be reproduced and participated in to affirm something particular about both a society’s sense of its ‘roots’ in time and place, and also the inter-generational linkages and solidarities in which its collective identity is formed (Sabate et al. 2004). More important for our purposes, though, are the self-consciously ‘modern’ (‘post-traditional’) and ‘official’ state-derived cultural events and institutions ‘invented’ (Hobsbawm 1992) by nationalist and state elites during important phases of nation-building, particularly the late nineteenth century.

These events symbolize and legitimate the modern nation-state, and help to simplify and amplify, construct and propagate, the particularities of its national narrative and identity. They include, for instance, public rituals surrounding the investiture or death of political leaders, the collective memorializations of key founding figures, revolutions or wars, and the special places and architectures in relation to which these events occur (Smith 1998; Roche 2001a; Jones 2003). They also include the ‘inventions’ of the cultural institutions, calendars and movements concerned with the national exhibitions and the national sports and their urban heritages, sites and architectures, which were developed in many different nations, but particularly in France, Britain and the United States, from the late nineteenth century. The international mega-event genres we discuss in this chapter derive from, and can be said to sit astride, these latter ‘modern’ cultural innovations at the nation-state level and which contribute to what we can refer to as the social ecology of public events within nation-state societies. It is worth noting, then, that to focus on mega-events in relation to nations as we do in this chapter has its limits. Mega-events have certainly been significant for nations in modernity, and they continue to be so. But they are only one dimension of the broader and deeper social phenomenon of cultural events (together with their related cultural politics and policy-making, not least in terms of the spaces and times of their occurrence) which has helped to structure the cultural, communicative and reflective life of publics in modern nation-state societies.

To adequately contextualize both nation-states and mega-events and to provide a basis for understanding the connections between them a view needs to be taken about ‘modernity’ and historical periods. The history of mega-events runs from the first international exposition, the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, through to the present. From the perspective of many of the most influential sociologists and historians of nationalism this is coterminous with the construction and development of nation-states. From the perspective of much sociology more generally, this is effectively coterminous with ‘modernity,’ since the mid-nineteenth century was when industrialization began to transform modern societies across Europe and in the United States into ‘industrial societies.’ These involved historically distinctive configurations of classes based on industrial and urban capitalism. We can refer to this as a ‘mainstream modernization’ perspective. As containers of this structural revolution the modernization process also involved the development and institutionalization of nation-state systems. States committed themselves to promoting economic growth and to controlling and ameliorating class conflict, processes which would ultimately provide conditions for the evolution of nation-states as educational and ‘welfare states,’ particularly in Europe. So the main developmental background for exploring the relation between mega-events and nations concerns the stages of development that need to be identified within this modernization process from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

However, the whole concept of ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization’ and also of the development of nation-states has often been contested terrain both between historians and sociologists, and also within the disciplines between differing theoretical and normative perspectives. Recent alternatives to the ‘mainstream modernization’ perspective are concerned with perceived problems, among other things, with the ‘pre-modern’ on the one hand, and the ‘post-modern’ on the other—that is, around each ‘end’ of the mainstream modernist version of historical development.

At the ‘pre-modern’ ‘origins’ end of the continuum, medieval historians and historical sociologists declare that ‘modernity’ and/or the nation-state originated far earlier than either the nineteenth century industrial revolution or the eighteenth century Enlightenment precursor period. Guided by this recent analysis, the perspective taken in this chapter is that while we should recognize the potentially very deep pre-modern historical origins of modernity and its ‘nations,’ we particularly need to give a renewed significance to the ‘early modern’ period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is, economic, cultural and national institutions identifiable as recognizably ‘modern’ first substantially developed as aspects of a state-integrated complex in leading European societies like France and England from the sixteenth century. The most important great ‘events’ for nation-states in this period were not cultural but military, namely wars (albeit wars for cultural (religious) reasons, which then became the subject of national events of ritual memorialization), as in Europe’s ‘civil wars’ of the Reformation period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which the European nation-state system began to be consolidated (Kennedy 1988; Tilly 1992).

To take account of the realities of this ‘early modernity,’ and to differentiate it from the ‘mainstream modernity’ period, this chapter focuses on the period from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century which can be referred to as that of ‘mature modernity. However, within this periodization it is important to recognize the massive and complex impact on nations and on the international system of various major transformations, notably World War I. So it is useful to discriminate between a first and a second stage of mature modernity, the first focusing on the late nineteenth century and pre-war period, and the second running through from the inter-war and post-World War II periods. The history of the modern Olympics is bound up with the adaptation of nation-states to the transformation of intra-societal and international environments, particularly those in the second stage of mature modernity.

At the ‘contemporary’ end of the historical continuum of modernity there is the perspective that perhaps ‘modernity’ is over, and we are now into a new era.6 Without conceding the argument to such a ‘post-modern’ analysis, it is nonetheless possible to acknowledge that phenomena like post-industrialism and globalization suggest that there has been a further qualitative evolution of society beyond the second stage of ‘mature modernity.’ We can refer to this period as one of ‘late modernity,’ and see it as running from the mid-1970s to the present. The next section focuses on the relationship between mega-events and nations in the period of the second stage of ‘mature modernity,’ and then we turn to consider this relationship in the contemporary period of ‘late modernity.’

The Olympics in Mature Modernity: Nationalism, Super-Nationalism and Internationalism

This section outlines some key elements of the relationship of the Olympic mega-event movement and its games mega-event with nations and politics over the course of the ‘short twentieth century,’ from the end of World War I to the mid-1970s, the second stage of mature modernity. Since the politics of much of this period was characterized by the neo-imperialistic ideologies of fascism and communism, it is necessary to consider what might be referred to as ‘super-nationalism’ as a factor in the staging of Olympic Games. As part of this discussion, we also look briefly at the association of the Olympics with ideals of internationalism in this period.

The Olympics and nationalism in the twentieth century

Nineteenth-century European nationalisms and elite national cultures, particularly those of Britain, France and Germany, elaborated particularistic myths of ethnic origin in medieval ‘gothic’ pasts, and this can be seen most visibly in the ‘neo-gothic’ architecture of some of the new public buildings constructed in the period, particularly in Britain. However, at the very same time, national elites also were able to build on the discoveries of the new discipline of archaeology and associate themselves with the roots of European civilization in ancient Greece and Rome. This also can be readily seen in the ‘neoclassical’ style of new public buildings constructed in this period in many nations (Jones 2003). The interest of the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin and his associates in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in producing a modern version of the ancient Olympic Games was thus part of the long wave of interest by otherwise modernizing European elites in the Hellenic world. In addition, de Coubertin was also influenced by the internationalism of the late nineteenth-century French expos which he had been enthralled with in his youth. Indeed the expo genre helped give birth to the Olympic movement as three of the first four Games events were held in association with expos (namely, 1900 Paris, 1904 St Louis, 1908 London; see MacAloon 1981; Roche 2000: ch. 3).

The Olympic movement built on the mid-and late nineteenth-century ‘invention’ of formalized sports by British elite groups, energizing and articulating the sport movement by adding an idealistic international and ‘civilizational’ set of meanings and values to it. International Olympic Games were organized on a regular four-year calendar from the beginning in 1896, as were football World Cup events after they broke away from the Olympics in 1930 (Sugden and Tomlinson 1998; Lanfranchi et al. 2004). These regular and irregular mega-event cycles provided a significant intra- and inter-generational structuring of the international cultural calendar for the mass publics and the mass press and media of Europe and North America, and also for elite groups around the world, throughout the first and second stages of mature modernity.

Host nations have traditionally used, and continue to use, the Olympic Games for a variety of nationalistic reasons, including such things as the promotion of nationalistic ideology, marking a new stage in nation-building, expressing particular national (multinational) complexities. All host nations seek to use the Olympic Games to promote their nationalistic ideology and this is an underlying and pervasive theme of most occurrences of Games events since their recreation in the modern period. In 1896, at the first of the modern Olympic Games, the Greek nationalist hosts tried to get the Olympic event based permanently in Athens, on the model of the permanent siting of the ancient Olympic Games in Olympia. However, the IOC had already decided that the event should rotate between nations (even between continents), and they successfully resisted this pressure. In 2004 Greece once again hosted the Games. Although the event was in many respects a success at the time, there is no doubt that the real costs and opportunity costs involved in both the preparation and long-term impact of the event imposed heavy economic and political burdens on the Greek state and society. Given their 2004 experience, Greeks might be relieved that their forebears failed to win the argument back in 1896.

Nations may also use the Games to mark a new stage in their development involving a new national identity and image. There are a number of examples of this sort of use. They include Spain’s use in 1992 of the Olympics in Barcelona and also the Expo in Seville, to mark a new post-Franco and new-EU-member status (Spa et al. 1995; Harvey 1996; Hargreaves 2000). They also include Australia’s use of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to attempt to mark a new phase in its national narrative in its decision to use the opening ceremony to symbolize its commitment to the challenging idea/l of multicultural nationhood (although the connection of this cultural gesture with the reality of its policies towards its native peoples and also to its subsequent immigration policy is perhaps open to question). In terms of nation-building and modernization (including in the sense of ‘Westernization’) some of the main examples of Olympic events marking this in the post-war period have been staged by East Asian countries, namely Japan (Tokyo 1964) and South Korea (Seoul 1988). China seems to be preparing to use the 2008 Beijing Games in the same sort of way.

Given the practically unavoidable interconnection of the Games with the nationalism of the host state it is rare that more complex messages are conveyed, for instance in terms of the sub-nationalism of stateless nations incorporated within multinational states. However, in the games of Montreal (1976) and Barcelona (1992) attempts were made to use the events to express the Quebec and Catalan sub-nationalist identities of the host cities alongside of the Canadian and Spanish national identities of the host nations. On equally rare occasions the organization and ritual of Games events can be disrupted by largely unrelated political movements interested in using the events’ extensive media coverage to bring particular political issues to the attention of the international public. The main illustrations of this are the case of the ‘Black Power’ protest by American athletes at a medal ceremony in the Mexico City Olympics 1968 and the bloody intervention by a Palestinian nationalist group in the 1972 Munich Olympics, which involved the taking of Israeli athletes as hostages and ended tragically with the killing of both the hostages and the hostage-takers. These examples indicate both the general usability of the Olympic mega-event for host nations’ nationalist purposes, but also the relative openness of the events as ‘texts’ in relation to particular political ‘readings,’ interpretations and interventions.

The Olympics and super-nationalism from the inter-war period

Super-nationalism refers to the neo-imperial strategies of nation-states which aspire to being hegemonic in relation to other nations either in a world-region or world-wide. The main forms of super-nationalism which concern us here in the early and mid-twentieth-century development of the Olympic Games are those evidenced in Nazi Germany and the USSR (e.g. Roche 2000: ch. 4 and 2001a respectively). These forms of super-nationalism were both causes and effects of the two ‘world wars.’ These two periods of mass slaughter and destruction in the supposedly ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced’ civilization of Europe left impacts on the mega-events of the period, both positive and negative. Super-nationalism influenced these public cultural events substantively by attempting to use them and take them over for propaganda purposes and also by providing them with models of address to mass publics. They influenced these public cultural events negatively by providing processes and arenas for the expression of political and cultural conflict. They might be said to have influenced them positively by making the pursuit and achievement of peaceful international communication through cultural events a matter of historic consequence for the future of modernity and of enduring concern and interest, both for elites and for mass publics (see the ‘internationalism’ theme below).

The super-nationalist theme and its association with the Olympic Games event was most clearly and floridly developed in the neo-imperialism of inter-war totalitarianism, on the one hand that of Stalinist Russia (neo-imperial in relation to the numerous other ‘soviet republics’ which made up the ‘union’ in the 1930s and the Eastern European communist states in much of the post-war period), and on the other hand Fascist countries, particularly Nazi Germany in the 1930s (explicitly committed to aggressively expansionist neo-imperialism). The growth of twentieth-century super-nationalist politics in general involved an address to mass publics, the use and promotion of the charismatic, emotionality and aestheticization in politics and culture, involving a heavy emphasis on symbols and myths, and on the cultural forms of mass collective rituals, theatre and festival. The dramatic theatricalization and ritualization of politics and of events in the super-nationalist period both had a direct impact on, and also provided a model for, the development of the sport movement in general and the Olympics in particular. Mass sport spectacles came of age in this period in the West, in fascist Europe and also in the Olympic-like ‘Spartakiads’ of the USSR.

Olympic symbols and rituals were developed and institutionalized in both the pre-1914 and also the inter-war periods. The Olympic movement was directly influenced by inter-war super-nationalism and by the threat that the latter posed to its independence and integrity as an international cultural movement and institution. Olympism was influenced to invest much further than it had previously done in creating a distinctive and identifiable set of ideals, symbols and rituals. These needed to be trans-national as well as inter-national, not least in order to act as a counterweight to super-national influences. The alternative was to risk being taken over, used and abused by super-nationalist powers and their versions of nationalism and internationalism. This risk undoubtedly threatened the Olympic movement in the 1930s in relation to Nazi Germany.

Evidently the Olympics could be used to promote ‘super-nationalist’ ideologies; and this has been a feature not only of the mature modernity period, but it also runs through into the late modernity period. As we have indicated, in terms of ‘super-nationalism’ and the regime ideologies promoted by aspirant or de facto ‘super-power’ nations, probably the most notorious Olympic Games in this respect was the 1936 ‘Nazi’ Olympics in Berlin. However, other post-war examples in the history of the Olympics Games, particularly the games of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, indicate that the super-nationalist theme continued to permeate the movement and its events until at least the end of the Cold War. The two ‘Cold War’ Olympics blatantly promoted the world-views and ideologies of Soviet Communism and American liberal capitalism respectively, and in response to this each event also generated international political debate and was the target of international boycott campaigns.

The Olympics and internationalism in the twentieth century

The Olympic movement and its mega-events, from de Coubertin onwards, are strongly associated with the normative principles of liberal internationalism. Throughout the twentieth century, and in spite of the periodic vulnerability of the Olympic movement to political ideologies and to problems of corruption, they provided publicly engaging spectacles in which these principles have been and continue to be expressed, symbolized and dramatized (Roche 2000: ch. 7, 2002a; Barney et al. 2002). In the 1970s the IOC and the Olympic movement played a leading role in the sport boycott movement which helped to isolate and delegitimize the racist ‘apartheid’ regime in South Africa (e.g. Hill 1996: ch. 10). More recently the IOC has become a visible cultural actor in the field of international governance and politics through its association with the United Nations organization. It has attempted to associate the movement with the promotion of universalistic human rights and also it has promoted development in underdeveloped nations by means of a sport aid programme.

Less credibly it has attempted to promote peace in the international arena by means of the concept of an ‘Olympic Truce.’ This draws from the 1000-year tradition in the ancient Games of safe passage for athletes from all city-states and nations in the Hellenic world to compete in the Games. Since the 1990s the IOC has influenced the United Nations to accept and declare Olympic truces in the cycle of Olympic Games. However, apart from a brief ceasefire in the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 this process has not yet been notably successful. Perhaps a more tangible way to conceive of the Olympic movement’s internationalism and its use in symbolizing peace between nations is its record in relation to the world wars of the twentieth century. It might be argued that the Games’ capacity to symbolically mark postwar reconstruction after the two World Wars has been among their more substantial internationalist achievements.

Beyond the formal peace treaties which concluded the World Wars, Olympic Games events not only marked but began to celebrate peace, reconstruction and a return to humanity and normality in national affairs and international relations. In relation to World War I the 1920 Antwerp Games enabled nations to gather in what had been ‘the killing fields’ of Flanders in a spirit of peace and cultural community. The 1948 London Olympics performed the same sort of function in relation to World War II in a city still marked at the time by the destruction of the ‘blitz.’ Post-war reconstruction in relation to both World Wars was a long-term process for European nation-states. In relation to World War I it is possible to see the Olympics of Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928 as continuing the work of Antwerp and as having something of this character. Comparably, in relation to World War II it is possible to see the Olympics of Helsinki in 1952 and Rome in 1960 (not to mention also the Brussels Expo of 1958) in this light. Beyond Europe something similar could be said about the Olympics of Melbourne in 1956 and even possibly also of Tokyo in 1964 and Munich in 1972. Also, as long aftermaths of the Korean War, the fact that South Korea staged an Olympics in 1988, and that North and South Korea made a decision to march together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics (2000), can be noted in this context. At the time the latter action was regarded, at the very least, as a notable diplomatic gesture and movement towards a possible future of peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

Mega-Events and Nations in Late Modernity

The same set of nationalistic and nation-state reasons that drove states’ interests in staging mega-events in general and the Olympics in particular in the period of ‘mature modernity’ continue to do so in the contemporary ‘late modern period.’ States have traditionally used mega-events to add to their national status and identity, and also to their national narratives, for both internal and international publics. Evidently, however, these national interests in the contemporary period are played out against a changed and changing international context, in terms of their geopolitical situation, their stage of economic development and the available technologies and resources. This changed context includes decisive and irreversible shifts towards ‘post-industrial’ national economies based on services and new information and communications technologies in the context of an integrating and globalizing international economy. The potential role and significance of sport mega-events in particular for nations in this period have, if anything, increased.

On the one hand international mega-events and their organizations, in particular the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the international soccer governing body, FIFA, have been significantly empowered as international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) vis-à-vis nation-states in the contemporary international and global cultural system, such as it is. This is because of their ability to organize synergies between, and derive significant income streams from, such key developments characteristic of late modernity as the advent and cultural dominance of global satellite television, of mass international tourism and of globally distributed, marketed and branded consumer commodities together with the jungle of multinational companies organizing their circulation.

On the other hand, the most significant political developments in this period have increased the interest of nations in symbolizing themselves both to their own national publics and also in the eyes of the community of nations and global publics. These developments include the fall of communism and also the rise of world regions as international political arenas (whether for aspirant continental federations following the model of the European Union or for aspirant superpowers such as initially Japan, and subsequently China). Each of these processes has stimulated the renewal of national identities, nationalism and nation-state formation, in various ways, even though in one case this is a product of the disintegration of a transnational system and in the other a product of the progressive integration of such a system. The fall of communism in the early 1990s inaugurated a new and ongoing wave of nationalist ideologies and nation-building from the disintegration of the former USSR and its sphere of influence. In addition, the EU integration process has also generated renewals of nationalism among its member states. Thus both of these political developments in late modernity have stimulated an interest in symbolizing and communicating messages about national images and identities in general, and nations’ interests in using mega-events to do so in particular.

In summary then, in ‘late modernity,’ the era of ‘globalization,’ such factors such as the rise of global television and consumer culture, the fall of communism and the growth of world regional multinational economic agreements, provide stimuli and opportunities not only for a maintenance but also for an increase in nation-states’ interests in staging mega-events over the course of the period. The rise of global television is particularly important in offering host nations real, albeit transient, ‘live’ access to substantial proportions of the planet’s populations in most of the planet’s nations. For instance, the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Games was watched by an estimated 3.5 billion people world-wide. These events provide some rare substance to the idea of ‘the global village,’ and it is understandable that contemporary nation-states are interested in gaining the status and opportunities offered by hosting them.

In late modernity there has been a notable increase in cities and their sponsoring nations entering the cycle of global competitions to stage such international sport mega-events as the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and the World Cup football championship. This has occurred particularly since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. This event showed that sport mega-events could generate large revenues from the sale of television rights and from commercial sponsorship. Thus, at least in principle, they might even make surpluses, or at least they might not need large public subsidies. In practice, the enthusiasm of states to host these events is indicated by the fact that they have continued to provide large subsidies and expenditures for mega-events. These finances have been particularly to provide such less visible but absolutely necessary elements of mega-events as up-to-date urban transport and communications infrastructures capable of managing the unprecedented inflows of international visitors and the outflows of televisual images such events unavoidably generate. The interest of states in mega-events in late modernity can be seen particularly in the fact that many leading nations can be said to have pursued multiple mega-event strategies. The extent of this contemporary phenomenon can now be indicated, and the intensity of nations’ commitments to these strategies can be illustrated in the case of the new South Africa.

Nations and ‘multiple mega-event’ strategies in late modernity

At the beginning of this chapter the longevity and continued importance of the main mega-event genres in national and international culture in the modern period in general were noted. This is clear in the contemporary late modern period, from the mid-1970s to the present, which has seen the impact of global mediatization on mega-events, a shift from expo to sport events, and within the dominant sport events a near equalization of status and role between the Olympics and World Cup football events. Among both the advanced Western nations and also among developing and newly industrialized nations and their leading cities there has continued to be a strong interest in aiming to stage international popular cultural mega-events, often (and preferably) more than one such event to extend and maximize their positive impacts. These can be seen as effectively constituting long-term national multiple mega-event strategies, and as giving a new status and profile to culture as a vehicle and tool in the repertoire of contemporary nation-states’ domestic public policies and their foreign and diplomatic policies.

The range of nations which can be said to have pursued multiple mega-event strategies in recent decades includes most of the major nations in the North American, European and East Asian world regions. European nations have had an advantage in terms of staging mega-events since the late nineteenth century, since the major event genres were invented in Europe, Europe remains the leading world region for soccer, is an important location for international sport governing bodies, and is one of the leading world regions for most of the Olympic sports. Most of the major European nations have either staged a number of mega-events in the late modern period, or have bid to do so, and this can be briefly illustrated in the case of Spain. Spanish cultural policy has been distinctly marked by the staging of mega-events in the contemporary period. Spain hosted the 1982 FIFA World Cup, the 1992 Summer Olympics (Barcelona), the 1992 Expo (Seville) and Madrid put in a bid to host the 2012 Olympics (subsequently awarded to London). The 1992 events were used to mark the nation’s historic emergence from Francoist authoritarianism and also its entry into the European Union. Mega-events and multiple event strategies are perceived to be just as relevant, arguably even more so, for new and developing nation-states in the contemporary period, and this can be illustrated in the case of post-apartheid South Africa.

New South Africa has sought to build its national identity—both its internal solidarity and national consciousness, and also its external image and standing in the eyes of the international community—through the staging of international sport mega-events and through national achievements in the global culture of world sport. No doubt factors such as South Africa’s status as both an African continental nation and also as a relatively poor and developing nation have added to the unusual commitment and persistence the governing African National Congress party has brought to the mega-event strand of its nation-building strategy. In 1995, soon after the defeat of the apartheid regime, it staged the Rugby Union World Cup and in addition managed to win it. In 1996 it staged the African Nations soccer cup and managed to win this also. In the 1994–97 period the South African government encouraged Cape Town’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign to win the right to stage the 2004 Olympics. In the period 1996–2000 it similarly backed the national football association’s campaign to stage the 2006 FIFA World Cup football championship, with the same negative result. In the meantime it also campaigned successfully for and staged the 1999 All-Africa athletics event and the 2003 Cricket World Cup. In this period also it was finally successful with FIFA and won the right to host the 2010 World Cup. For good or ill this consequential achievement will, no doubt, increasingly dominate the public expenditure plans of the national government and the public discourse of South African politics as the event deadline inexorably approaches over the coming few years.


In each of the main stages in the development of modernity outlined in this chapter factors have pushed states to take an interest in mega-events. The emergence of multiple event strategies in many states in the contemporary period testifies to the fact that these push factors, and nations’ willingness to respond to them, if anything, seem to have increased over time. Overall it might be suggested that national governments’ generally positive interests in responding to the pressures to bid for and to stage international mega-events in the contemporary period are connected with their assumptions about the predictability of the mass popularity of these events, both internationally and domestically. This predictable mass popularity no doubt is in part a product of the varied competences of the ideologists and ‘imagineers,’ the organizers, communicators and participants who produce the spectacle of the events. Thus to a certain extent it continues to remain open to attempted use and abuse by nation-states for reasons of national interest in the pursuit of ideological and hegemonic projects of various kinds. Aspects of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in China are likely to be interesting from this perspective.

This chapter has reviewed the changing nature and role of mega-events and their relevance for nations from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, using the concepts and rough periodization of ‘mature modernity’ and its two main stages, together with ‘late modernity,’ as a framework. Mega-events and their associated organizations and movements have been shown to be relatively fragile and vulnerable to influences. Nevertheless, the main mega-event genres have retained a significant position over the long term in international culture, international cultural politics and also in the cultures of the succession of host nations. Mega-events can be seen to offer the promise of concrete, if transient, versions and visions of symbolic, participatory and celebratory national and international community. In an era in which nations mourn the ‘loss of community’ and governments powerlessly observe the alienation of citizenries from national politics, this promise is likely to continue to be hard for nation-states to ignore.