Major international sporting events (MISE)

This text presents and discusses the French concept of grands événements sportifs internationaux (GESI), i.e. major international sporting events (MISE). This entry clarifies the various terms used in French and Anglo-Saxon academic literature, then examines the different meanings of the term ‘sporting event’ in various disciplinary fields which each reveal a facet of the notion, thereby illustrating its density. The third paragraph deals more specifically with the definitional scope of MISE with regard to the various criteria identified in the literature and is intended to highlight two seemingly representative definitions which each focus on a specific dimension. The fourth and fifth paragraphs aim to discuss the notion through an analytical and critical lens of the definitional issues.

Definitional framework for major international sporting events (MISE)

For once, the francophone approach to characterising large-scale sporting events is relatively simpler compared to the variety of Anglo-Saxon terms. The term grands événements sportifs (major sporting events) or grands événements sportifs internationaux (major international sporting events) is becoming standard; it has few alternatives and is regularly used both by institutions (e.g., this calendar; DIGES) and researchers (Barget and Gouguet, 2010; Charrier and Jourdan, 2019).

However, Anglo-Saxon literature uses a plethora of similar terms to describe events, depending on the importance given to this or that dimension, and, above all, depending on the author: ‘major one-time sport event’ (Ritchie, 1984), ‘large-scale sport event’ (Roche, 2000), ‘mega sport event’ (Rooney, 1988), ‘major sport event’ (Jago and Shaw, 1998) and, more recently, ‘giga sport event’ (Muller, 2015), all of which are established to counter ‘recurring sport event[s]’ or ‘small scale sport event[s]’. Similarly, the literature also identifies ‘hallmark sport event’ (Getz, 1992) to describe an event named after the location in which it takes place (e.g., Wimbledon). However, despite this Anglo-Saxon plethora of terms, the apparent simplicity of the French in no way negates the complexity of the notion or what it implies.

By definition, an event is a moment breaking with the linearity of time, being exceptional in nature and having potentially positive or negative repercussions afterwards. Applied to the field of sport, the definition takes on a different hue depending on the discipline which examines it — from an epistemological angle, the point of view creates the object — while generally keeping any negative dimensions at a distance. Generally speaking, a sporting event is first and foremost the place ‘where men and women gather […] to watch a sport show’ (Piquet, 1985: p.23). In a social context, it is a time people come into contact, a form of collective celebration (Fredline and Faulkner, 2000) and a space of liminality (Chalip, 2006) conducive to strengthening a sense of belonging (Burgan and Mules, 1992).

By taking part in an experience that is profoundly connected to the location, the event could be considered a spatial component in its own right (Gravari-Barbas, 2009). Geography examines events through the study of relationships formed between social groups and places, particularly by investigating the notion of lived space (Di Méo, 2004). A historical approach understands events as a fragment of perceived reality, inscribed in time and shared with others; the challenge lies in grasping its fragmented existence (Farge, 2002) in order to comprehend its scope, meaning and memory (Violette and Attali, 2018). An economic approach treats sporting events as a collective good which produces social benefits and costs (Barget, 2001) that should be measured. A managerial approach examines them as a source of networking between stakeholders, formalised at the legal level through partnership contracts and, at the economic level, through real and monetary flows (Bourg and Gouguet, 1998). Marketing addresses an identitary social reality with brand capital specific to sport (Ferrand et al., 2006), and which can be considered an adaptable, lively, festive and human-resonant medium (Didry, 2008). Finally, a political science approach focuses on public investment (Mills and Rosentraub, 2013) and the (many) political goals that are generally associated with the sporting event (Bourbillères, 2017) or its role in international diplomacy (Boniface, 2012).

A major international sporting event would therefore be all of the above and more, considering that its main feature would be the critical size (or intensity) of its component dimensions. Although these dimensions may vary slightly between authors, they are concentrated around the following criteria (Marris, 1987; Gratton et al., 2000; Gammon, 2011; Muller, 2015): an international scope; a considerable number of participants, spectators and volunteers; appeal and extensive media coverage; high organisational expenses; significant impacts on the public and the built environment. Others add variables such as the status of the project promoter (Ferrand and Chanavat, 2006; Downward et al., 2009), the type of sport, the recurrence and commercial purpose of the event (Ferrand and Chappelet, 2015) or the type of motor skills involved, the date of creation and the competitive nature (Bessy and Suchet, 2016) to distinguish between athletic competitions (Tour de France), show-like performances (wrestling matches) and elite sporting and mass events (marathon). However, the academic literature clearly shows a definitional framework for major sporting events based on two dimensions.

The first characterises the international scope of MISE and exemplified in Roberts’ definition (2004): the mega-event has a discontinuous, original, international nature with an extraordinary global composition, capable of reaching millions of people around the world through media coverage. The second dimension emphasises the predominantly economic, communicational and tourist-focused effects. In this respect, Getz’s definition (2007: p. 25) is exemplary: ‘[m]ega-events, by way of their size or significance, are those that yield extraordinarily high levels of tourism, media coverage,prestige, or economic impact for the host community, venue or organization’. This can be classified as a ‘Type A’ event in the standard typology by Gratton and Taylor (2000) below. Finally, MISE are total social phenomena (Mauss, 1923) which punctuate and even pace social life when recurrent, but from this point of view, essentially based on economic, media and tourist impact.


Sporting event typology (Gratton and Taylor, 2000: p. 190) – French translation by Hugo Bourbillères

Scientific perspectives and challenges of MISE

From a scientific perspective, it is difficult to precisely evaluate each of the criteria with varying degrees of measurability; while identifying the number of volunteers involved in the organisation is straightforward, precisely characterising the impact on the public is less so. Even if it were possible to precisely measure the number of visitors and organisational cost — which the academic literature generally challenges (‘A full Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) considers all economic, environmental and social factors in determining the overall impact of an event. Although the performance of events should be assessed from the multiple perspectives adopted in a CBA, the majority of event evaluations that have been undertaken to date have been restricted to economic evaluations […] It should be noted, however, that economic evaluations do not provide a complete picture of the event and could give misleading results’ [Dwyer and Jago, 2006: p.2]) — these indicators alone would be insufficient as the need to build new sport infrastructure, which is always the main budget item, would largely depend on where the event takes place. Furthermore, the ‘international nature’ could be confusing given that this definition could apply to a European championship in a sport with little media coverage. Therefore, to overcome these issues, one may opt for a more extensive and qualitative approach to the notion, at least in three aspects which correspond to three stimulating short- and medium-term challenges for the scientific community.

First, it should be clarified that only a concomitant identification of all the criteria would suffice to qualify an event as a MISE. This would perhaps make it possible to avoid the syndrome of the ‘third “biggest” event in the world’ which, depending on the year and the criterion put forward by the sponsor of the study, would be the World Athletics Championships, the Ryder Cup, the Rugby World Cup, the Tour de France or the Super Bowl. In this respect, the definitions of variable geometry only further add to the confusion.

Second, an intangible dimension relating to the social effects, widely studied since the mid-2000s, should be added to the current definition. Considering the predominantly materialist nature of the definitions most commonly used in the literature (such as Getz’s definition cited above), the social dimensions are regularly omitted. However, as it is established in the broad field of emotions (Farge, 2002) and part of a synergy of attention and enthusiasm over a given period of time, it is potentially a vehicle for meaningful lived experiences (Hall, 1992) in terms of social cohesion, citizenship, the development of physical and athletic activities or education (Charrier et al., 2019).

Third, MISE can also be a source of problems (displacement of populations and gentrification, hooliganism and insecurity, vandalism, prostitution, etc.). Many authors argue that local populations gain nothing from large-scale sporting events, which primarily benefit economic and political elites (Andranovich et al., 2001; Horne and Manzenreiter, 2006). Therefore, a definition of a MISE that only includes the most obvious material impacts would be systematically incomplete because it would fail to take into account the variety and diversity of effects at work, including the more harmful aspects. It is only by making progress in comprehending these counter-intuitive dimensions, which appear as a ‘counterpoint’ to the most obvious effects — which are already well documented — that the definitional scope of major international sporting events will continue to become more scientifically sound.

‘When a MISE makes a mark on the city’ — example of urban visual marking during the UEFA Euro 2016 in Paris (cl. Hugo Bourbillères)

Hugo Bourbillères


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