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“Nothing should be off the table” | Commonwealth Games’ Grevemberg on major events after the pandemic

David Grevemberg, Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive (Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images for Commonwealth Games Federation)

  • Commonwealth Games Federation exploring new hosting methods such as the split between Birmingham and Chandigarh in 2022
  • Such arrangements will become increasingly common as both hosts and rights-holders look to minimise risk, says Grevemberg
  • Collaboration and innovation crucial to using major events as economic stimulus after Covid-19 pandemic

“I think the pandemic will have a permanent effect on how we organise and own our responsibilities as event owners,” David Grevemberg, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation, tells SportBusiness.

With the bidding process for the 2026 Commonwealth Games just beginning and the preparations for Birmingham 2022 well underway, Grevemberg’s organisation is particularly concerned with the medium-term legacy left once the pandemic is over. What the events space may look like in six years’ time is anyone’s guess, though Grevemberg expects that the after-effects of Covid-19 will still be felt. 

“The world’s going to be different next week; it’ll be different by 2026,” he says. Grevemberg casts his mind back to the months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which he says was “arguably the last time sporting events were shaken up in anything like the way they have been today”.

 “Even that isn’t comparable – it was much less of a disruption – but it still preceded a step-change in terms of the security footprint you saw at events. That duty of care piece – whether it’s security, safety, health of athletes or fans or local citizens – it’s always at the forefront of an event organiser’s thinking. How you manage your liabilities and indemnities in the safest manner has always been a moving feast, but that’s going to be one of the longest-lasting impacts of the virus on our sector.”

Collaboration

Even if the pandemic ultimately has a minor impact on the shape of major events and on how bidding processes are run, Grevemberg says it will unquestionably focus minds on why a city or region may want to host an event. 

“Choosing to host a major event has never been a casual decision,” he says, “but after something like this, cities and regions are going to have really put the work in to justify why spending millions on a major, multi-sport event is worthwhile and what it can bring back to the area. Long gone are the days of bread and circuses. Long gone are the days of saying, ‘we’re going to run 11 days of great sporting competition’ and that being justification in itself.”

The launch of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games official Countdown Clock (Photo by Miles Willis/Getty Images for Birmingham 2022)

Even before the virus hit, the CGF had begun to emphasis the economic boost it offers hosts. In May this year, it published a report touting an average economic impact of £1bn for the Commonwealth Games this century, with the last edition, in Gold Coast, Australia, generating as much as £1.2bn for the regional economy. The report’s findings are “more important now than ever”, says Grevemberg.

“We’ve definitely positioned [the Commonwealth Games] as a stimulus package, whether it’s an emerging, regenerative or sustained market. We look at those as the three different market types that we’re catering to, and I do think that major sporting events, when run with that balance of world-class and community-relevant experience and benefit, can be an amazing tool for development, because it forces this integrated, joined-up way of thinking. It challenges communities and systems and federations to come together and figure out how to run something like this for the benefit of a whole region.”

He adds that now more than ever it is vital that cities, rights-holders and federations come together and find new ways of working with one another to achieve their mutual goals. A recent study from The Sports Consultancy found that government and host cities’ objectives when hosting major sports events have significantly diverged in the last decade, and Grevemberg feels that the recovery steps from the pandemic represent a perfect opportunity to bring these back into line. 

“Things that we’ve may have taken for granted, such as collaboration, I think we really need to define what that means,” he says. “And in terms of an increasingly competitive and crowded market of sport, how should international federations collaborate with one another, but also how do we collaborate with those public-private sector partners differently? Not only to stay relevant and resonate, but also to ensure that the investments that are being made, whether that’s public or private or social investment in terms of people’s time and energy and focus, are justified and beneficial and provide positive impact benefits.”

That has played heavily into the encouragement the CGF has given to Hamilton, Canada to submit a bid for the 2026 Games. The Ontario city had been planning a push for 2030 – which would mark the 100th anniversary of its hosting of the first ever Commonwealth Games – but now looks likely to aim instead for the next edition after Birmingham, with the CGF having told Hamilton it is likely to be unchallenged in doing so. 

Cynics may suggest that the CGF was simply ensuring it had a viable candidate for 2026 and could secure a more high-profile host for the centenary edition, but Grevemberg says that avoiding costly and unnecessary bidding races is a core tenet of the organisation’s Transformation 2022 strategic plan, and is something he encourages other major event owners to do more of going forward.  

“We’ve been going through this new bidding model for about two years, which has really been about a dialogue phase, feasibility assessments, formal candidature, and then an evaluation, and ultimately award. And that dialogue phase is really about looking for those partnerships, not running the traditional horse race that is a bid.”

Innovation

New ways of working are crucial, he says, as potential host cities around the world begin to assess how they can use major sporting events as part of their economic recovery from the pandemic. “We simply have to innovate. We must innovate and be creative in this space. Innovation is going to be critical in the space on how and what we deliver in terms of major sporting events. Whether that be the actual overall footprint of the experience for a multi-sport event, or whether we take that back further and look at the actual delivery of those events. Do we do it in one place or in multiple locations? I think we’ll start to see a lot more experimentation in this area.”

The CGF claimed that the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia created an economic impact of £1.2bn for the region (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)

The CGF has already been experimenting with these kinds of innovations as part of its solution to include shooting and archery on the programme for the 2022 Games. After the Birmingham organising committee decided to drop the disciplines – due, in part, to the fact that they would have been held over 130 miles away from England’s second city, in Surrey – the Indian Olympic Association threatened to boycott the event entirely, with its athletes having previously seen major success in shooting. 

Eventually, a compromise was reached: shooting and archery will be held in the Indian city of Chandigarh, six months prior to Birmingham. The two events will be separately organised and funded, with a complete medals table, taking into account the Chandigarh results, to be issued two weeks after the Commonwealth Games’ closing ceremony, and Grevemberg is keen to stress that the shooting and archery in India is distinctly “Chandigarh 2022 in its own right”.

“Somewhere between innovation and collaboration is this notion of co-hosting,” he says, “and it’s absolutely something we will continue to look at as we deal not only with the fallout from the pandemic, but with the issues that we as a federation and the world at large were already dealing with before this year.”

Grevemberg acknowledges that one of these issues has been the historic difficulty the Games has had in reaching developing parts of the Commonwealth. In its history, just three instalments have been held outside of the major economies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK. One of those, the 2010 edition hosted by the Indian capital territory of Delhi, was excluded from the CGF’s report into the economic impact of 21st-century Games, purportedly due to a lack of data on the long-term effects, though that event also became infamous for eventually running up costs equivalent to 16 times the initial budget. 

With South Africa having been the intended destination for 2022 before Durban pulled out, citing an inability to justify the expenditure, Grevemberg says that taking events to new destinations remains high on his agenda, and adds that the innovative thinking that is likely to be imposed on event organisers by the pandemic will open new opportunities for that to happen. 

“Form has to follow function,” he says. “The one thing we shouldn’t do is just keep doing it the same way just because that’s how it’s always been done. Of the world’s top 20 emerging cities, 10 are in the Commonwealth. We have two thirds of the world’s island states; we have some of the world’s biggest countries and some of the world’s smallest. 

“So we’re faced with a variety of different issues, and our challenge is, how do we make our Games relevant to those very different demands? Not all sports are able to be hosted by all communities, not every sport is widely and regularly practiced in all countries. So we need to find sustainable ways to hosting the Games, we need to look at whether some disciplines are more relevant to certain territories and how we integrate that relevance into our events. I think nothing should be off the table in terms of how we work smarter as a Commonwealth, in terms of building unity and addressing our shared values and shared history, as well as our shared ambitions for the future.”

The split hosting compromise of Birmingham and Chandigarh 2022 represents “a great pilot opportunity” to test the concept of hosting different sports in different locations, Grevemberg says. He adds that the CGF wouldn’t rule out other kinds of co-hosting arrangements which could see the Games divided across two cities within the same country, or over two different nations in the style of the European Championships. 

Whatever the future of major events, Grevemberg is sure that, eventually, audiences will want to return to watch high-class sport. “I think the in-stadium experience, those money-can’t-buy moments of ‘I was there when that happened’, that’s not going to go away,” he says. “We shouldn’t take those ‘Super Saturday’ moments for granted, I think sport should always be seeking to maximise those and make fans the core part of the experience. I’m cautiously optimistic that through both science and some creative thinking, we’ll find safe ways to get back to something like the major events that we all recognise and love.

“From an event owner perspective, or even an event organiser perspective, it brings in a whole slew of responsibilities that we’ve probably had forever, but I think that now we need to show we take them that much more seriously and that we really have the plans and visions in place.”

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